Okay – so maybe I will tell you more about trafficking, let’s face it, not everyone is going to delve deeper to learn more. It’s shocking and upsetting and it’s happening everywhere in the world, there are workers trapped in enforced servitude in chicken farms in the UK for goodness sake. But that’s another story. My experience was in the remote hill tribe villages of Northern Thailand. In this case it’s all about culturally ingrained ways of living that have little to do with the lucrative sex industry in Bangkok (although for many, that’s where it might lead).
While there are indeed gangs of dangerous traffickers that swoop in and abduct children and adults and force them to work in all kinds of industry from rice-picking to prostitution, polishing gems to domestic slavery (or some similar cliched image), there is also a much more subtly corrupting root cause: families.
Poor families without a means to change their circumstances, whose only asset is their children.
TL: outside the brothel in the village centre. TR and BL: young village girls playing, none of them are in school. BR: young boys abandoned by their parents have been taken in by their grandfather.
You can’t and we didn’t judge these lovely people as we were welcomed into their homes. The tribes people, Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Yao and Lisu for example, are mainly migrants from China, living on subsistence farming in an area more and more depleted of natural resources. They are illegal immigrants, unlikely to achieve Thai citizenship and not entitled to education or help from the kingdom.
Over generations it has been the cultural norm to “monetise” those assets, as happens in other parts of both the developed and third-world countries. So why am I focusing on these people … the small children you see above? Because I met them. There is a personal connection, small and tenuous for sure, but it’s there. I played with them (cue silly photograph of me on a bike) and watched them play as children do, unselfconsciously and with joy. They have no idea what their future holds.
But we do. Most of the young girls will work in the village brothel. It’s just another house in the village, no red light or dancing girls. It’s an ordinary house where the men of the village have sex with young women. Sadly, younger and younger girls are desirable. The boys are more likely to work in the fields, picking rice for hours on end. Some of the girls we met pick maize. We spoke to the girl on the far right (below); she was intelligent and funny but without the opportunity to go to school she and her sisters have a bleak future.
Some of the girls do end up in the big city. They return home smelling of perfume, with pretty clothes and money to feed the family … but not from “selling handbags”. The younger girls long to follow in their “glamorous” footsteps and so it goes on. One girl, home to visit the family, spoke English and told us she had an Aussie “boyfriend” whom she believed was going to marry her … her family was so proud and showed us a photo. I don’t hold out much hope to be honest.
Sisters, having cooked breakfast, are heading off to pick maize.
And it’s sometimes worse, if that’s even possible; families may obtain a loan from traffickers and the children work it off. This can take years, if ever. And here it’s even seedier; promises are made of jobs and opportunities for the kids … but the reality is more often slave labour, imprisonment, rape and beatings.
Hard to imagine this situation? Think of your eight year-old child, out playing in the snow today or dashing around on her bike in summer, carefree and joyous. Just like the kids I met in Thailand. But despite complaining about school (all kids do!) she has a future and even in our uncertain economic climate, can you imagine selling her to traffickers?
No, I bet you can’t. But you’ve never had to. You haven’t lived in a family where this has happened generation after generation. Where the culture accepts it as the norm. Where there a few other choices. And sadly, where evil traffickers can take advantage.
The hill tribes are not bad people but they are victims of circumstance. The only way to change things is to offer alternatives … and that is what many charities are trying to do. It’s a softly, softly approach of re-education. It’s not about judging. In the case of the charity I worked with, it’s been about saving only a few girls, but surely that is better that than none at all. It’s meant some villages are aware of the dangers and are looking for other options for their children.
Small steps, but stepping forward nonetheless.