Young girls go first, always the first to go, lost somewhere and never to be seen again. Their mothers and fathers are left wailing in the dead of night, calling out their children’s names like lost ghosts.
The policeman’s name is Nick. He shakes his head in apparent frustration as he talks about human trafficking in Thailand.
‘Human trafficking is the biggest problem we have now,’ he tells me one scorching September afternoon when nothing seemed unusual in this southeast Asian country.
Today is just like most days, he says, when daily life seems normal: local and foreign travellers alike are queuing at Bangkok’s golden temples with their gilded spires while colourful tuk-tuks are plying the city’s paved roads.
On the surface it would seem the biggest problem is simply Bangkok’s road traffic, says Nick, referring to the city’s monstrous traffic jams that leave hundreds of motorists stuck in the sweltering heat and suffocating humidity.
But it isn’t so, he insists. Human trafficking is a growing concern and authorities have yet to solve it, he concedes.
The root cause, he thinks, is poverty.
According to humantrafficking.org, Thailand is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking: ‘It is a destination-side hub of exploitation in the Greater Mekong sub-region, for both sex and labour exploitation.’
The majority of Thai trafficking victims are trafficked to the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bahrain and China, for both sexual and labour exploitation.
‘Thai victims have also been repatriated from Russia, South Africa, Yemen, Vietnam, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Singapore. Thai nationals are also known to be trafficked to Australia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Timor-Leste,’ according to the online resource, citing 2011 UN data.
Those who are lucky enough to be rescued, however, have problems settling back into to their communities.
A UN-backed report on human trafficking released on 14 October said that many victims of the scourge in the Greater Mekong sub-region of southeast Asia are not given adequate help for reintegration into their communities.
The study, commissioned by the governments of the Co-ordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT) – Cambodia, China, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam – said that when support is provided in a way that does not respect the will of the victims, or is even provided against their will, this may result in further trauma and a continuation of their victimization.’
It also said that the Mekong region, compared to many other parts of the world, contains very diverse patterns of human trafficking – internal and cross-border; highly organized or small-scale; sex and labour, through both formal and informal recruitment mechanisms.
‘Children from Cambodian or Myanmar [Burmese] border areas and rural Vietnam or China are trafficked to beg or sell flowers on the streets of larger cities, while women and girls from Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar [Burma] and Vietnam are increasingly being found in forced prostitution or domestic servitude in Malaysia. Trafficked Thai women are also found in the sex trade in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Africa, the Middle East, the United States and Western Europe,’ said the report, titled ‘After Trafficking: Experiences and Challenges in the (Re)integration of Trafficked Persons in the Greater Mekong Sub-region’.
The situation is not confined to Thailand: it is a growing problem plaguing the Asian region.
Just ask the family of Thi Thi Moe, a young Burmese girl whose mother I interviewed via email with the help of local Burmese journalist Leyee Myint when I was in Burma in August.
Moe is one of the estimated 10,000 victims trafficked to neighbouring countries every year for sexual slavery or forced labour.
Her family lives in Hinthada Township, some four hours away from Rangoon.
Her mother Soe Soe Tint said her daughter was sold for nearly $5,000 to a Chinese garment factory owner last year and has not yet been able to return.
She hopes that authorities will help address the problem by stepping up prosecutions.
Indeed, it is difficult to know for sure how many have been victims of human trafficking, but in the end, the statistics are not important.
One child, after all, is one victim too many, whether forced to beg in the chaotic streets of Asia or locked up in dingy brothels as sex slaves.