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Human trafficking: from vertical to horizontal journey.

Human trafficking is one form of human tragedy that jeopardises the dignity of the marginalised group namely poor women and children. It is a reflection of unequal relationship between the rich and the poor, women and men, developed and developing countries. Globalisation has aggravated this inequality and made people in the south a reservoir of cheap labour for industrialised and newly industiralised countries.

Labour export has been over a few decades a strategy for foreign earning of many countries in the South where underprivileged people see international labour migration as viable economic survival. The gender inequality and discrimination in international labour market allows women to work mainly in reproductive and informal sector in which they are very often abused and sexually exploited. The disproportionate number between available jobs in foreign lands and potential labour migrants provides a space for human smuggling and trafficking. The protectionist immigration policy and restrictive measures on regular labour migration in destination countries force cross-border migrants to depend on smugglers and traffickers and resulting in paying a high price for their lives. Human trafficking has become an issue of international concern, still very little has been achieved to protect the human rights of trafficked women and children.

I would like to present the case of Thailand to illustrate the situation of human trafficking to highlight some points for further consideration of appropriate actions in tackling the trafficking of women and children.

Sex tourism and international trafficking of women from Thailand

Thailand is a country in Southeast Asia with 61 million inhabitants in which women comprise about half. Tourism was developed in the early 1980s after the fall of the old regime in Saigon in 1975 and the withdrawal of US bases in Thailand in 1976. Sex industry has started to flourish as never before during the Vietnam War when Thailand was used as US base and RR (Rest and Recreation) destination for American soldiers. After American troupes withdrew, sex tourism took over the existing sex-related infrastructure. Bangkok and Pattaya became sex havens of men all over the world. During the 1990s, the estimated number of women/girls engaged in sex industry was not less than 400,000. They worked without any legal protection since Thailand criminalised prostitution in 1960. Any woman/girl engaged in prostitution would be fined and sent by court order to rehabilitation for two years while their customers did not get any social or legal sanction.

In 1996 Thailand promulgated a new law on suppression and prevention of prostitution. The deliberation of the new law is to combat child prostitution by penalising customers of underage prostitutes. According to the new Bill, prostitution of adult women is considered an offence as to upsets public morality. Women will be fined without compulsory rehabilitation. Only minors engaged in prostitution will be forcibly rehabilitated and parents involved in the sale of their children also will be punished.

Sex tourism was one of major factors contributing to the international migration of Thai women. In the early 1980s Thai women, on their own, moved to European countries to work in entertainment sector and/or to live with European sex tourists. The international migration of Thai women later-on transformed into the lucrative business of trafficking in women for the purpose of sexual exploitation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Thai women are trafficked not only to Europe but also to other regions especially to the Far East. The sexual exploitation of women is not limited only in forced prostitution but also in the mail-order bride business.

In order to curb the current situation of trafficking in women and children, Thailand enacted the new law in 1997 to replace the 1928 law against trafficking of women and girls. The new anti-trafficking bill covers women, boys and girls. The law also protects women and children of other nationalities who are trafficked into the country. Although the Bill focuses on the trafficking for prostitution use, it also cover other forms of all purposes. However enforcing the law on cases other than prostitution requires some legal interpretation. In 1999, Thailand initiated a Memorandum of Understanding for the treatment of trafficked of women and children (MOU) as a guideline for responsible governmental agencies (the National Police Office and the Public Welfare Department) to take legal action against traffickers and provide social assistance to trafficked women and children of Thai and other nationalities. The extension of protection to non-Thai groups was initiated by NGOs that provide assistance to foreign migrant women and children. They urged the authorities to treat the trafficked women and children in line with the international human rights and humanitarian standards.

Current situation of trafficking in women and children

In spite of all the efforts from GOs and NOGs, trafficking of women and children from Thailand is still considered one major social problem. The trafficking pattern has been divertified from two-step (village to town and to foreign country) to one-step (village to foreign country). The one-step pattern of trafficking raised concerns among involved agencies, as the victims are young women who never experienced working in sex industry. Women trafficked in the two-step pattern are migrants who have moved out of their village and worked either in factory or in sex industry. FFW (Foundation for Women) also found that the women in the one-step pattern are more prone to extreme forms of economic and sexual exploitation than those who worked before in sex industry. Women targeted by trafficking ring are not only Thai but also those from neighbouring countries and indigenous people residing in border areas. Many women from the latter group do not have identified nationality. They cross borders with forged documents and thereby might end up as stateless persons in destination countries. Though trafficking in women and children caters for various purposes, forced prostitution and slavery-like marriage are predominant and affects the lives of trafficked women and children. Moreover, the stigma from having been involved in sex-related activities makes it difficult for women and children to rebuild their lives. Most seriously, since majority of trafficked women work in lower strata of prostitution in the destination countries, they are most likely to be under control of their owners and not in the position to negotiate with customers to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and STDs.

Besides amending laws relating to prostitution and trafficking of women and children, the governmnet of Thailand has also set up a National Committee comprised of representatives of GOs and NGOs to co-ordinate programme and policy relating to trafficking. A national plan to suppress and prevent trafficking of women and children was also drafted by the National Committee and awaits for the cabinet endorsement. Currently, Thailand plays a leading role in the Mekong Region in fighting trafficking in women and children. MOU between Thailand and Cambodia was signed in May to improve the cross border co-operation in tackling the wrong doers and assist trafficked women and children.

International co-operation to combat trafficking in women and children

Thailand has collaborated with regional and international agencies to formulate actions against trafficking of women and children. The growing international community concern has resulted to among others the universal definition of human trafficking, which was adopted in the Protocol on Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, which is supplementary to the Convention against Organised Crime. According to the Protocol, trafficking in persons involves the following elements:

a) the physical movement of persons including recruitment, transportation and habouring or receipt,

b) means of threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception and abuse of authority,

c) purpose of exploitation

The three elements are crucial in order to make distinction of the three related movement namely migration, smuggling and trafficking. In this context, the consent of trafficked persons is irrelevant if there are three elements involved in the movement. For children any movement for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered trafficking in persons.

Besides the universal definition of human trafficking, the Protocol also requires state parties to provide, if appropriate and possible in accordance with their national laws, assistance to the trafficked persons and set up mechanism and co-operation to tackle the issue more effectively the problem. However, it was felt that the wording in this section of the Protocol does not oblige state party to seriously provide assistance to trafficked persons because the state can set condition to act in accordance with their own national laws but not according to the international human rights standard. At present over 150 countries including Thailand signed the Protocol and a few countries have ratified.

Apart from having this new international instrument to suppress the modern form of slavery, governments and international agencies as well as local NGOs have initiated many national and regional programmes to stop trafficking. Many countries also enacted new laws to suppress prostitution and trafficking.

With all these encouraging attempts and actions, trafficking of women and children for all purposes should vanish gradually. However we find that reality is not in line with such expectation. In Thailand alone, number of trafficked women and children is growing and involves women and children from all regions. Moreover, gross violation of their human rights is growing in magnitude as trafficked persons are denied access to legal and social redress. Hence, it is necessary to evaluate the current strategies and actions combating human trafficking.

From vertical to horizontal approach

Thai NGOs working on the issue such as the Foundation for Women observe that one factor for the limited success in fighting against trafficking of women and children, is the vertical approach in designing and implementing programmes. This approach aims at changing existing and making new laws and national policies to suppress organized crime involved in human trafficking and restrict cross-border movement of other nationals. In addition, the abolitionist stand on prostitution, which based on criminalization of all parties involved including women in prostitution and customers, makes it impossible to make distinction between by-choice sex workers and trafficked women in prostitution. The conflation of prostitution and trafficking into one agenda is ineffective as one can see from the nearly nil progress made out of the implementation of 1949 Convention (Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Persons and Exploitation of Prostitution of Others). The criminalisation of prostitution will not deter women from working in prostitution. On contrary, the law provides a loophole for corrupt officials to abuse their authorities and thus keep the sex industry to flourish. In the criminalisation system only women, either by choice or by force, are exploited sexually and economically. They also bear the burden of whore stigma and become target of state and criminal sanctions.

Generally, the vertical approach considers affected women and children as victims rather than actors that can decide on the future of their lives. The routine cycle of this approach is rescue/arrest---detain---deport. The state-led social assistance often entails condition that trafficked women/children agree to be witness in the criminal court case. It is in the interest of state to suppress criminal aspect of human trafficking but not to protect rights of trafficked women/children. Trafficked women/children are hardly informed of their legal rights and the consequences of criminal procedure against traffickers. Many of them withdraw from being court witness due to inadequate support and protection, social stigma and fear of reprisal from traffickers.

To summarize, the vertical approach has brought about the following problems:

1) The narrow scope of action, focusing only to suppress crime without ensuring protection and promotion of basic rights of trafficked women and children.

2) The arbitrary control and arrest of legal/illegal migrants under pretext of anti-trafficking concern.

3) The growingxenophobia and racial prejudice/discrimination against foreigners making them scapegoats of national crime and unemployment.

4) The lackofparticipation of affected groups and community to design plans and actions appropriate to their needs.

5 The growing dependency of potential migrants on smuggling and trafficking rings including worst forms of transportation and border crossing that adversely affect their life and security.

6) The growing stigma on women involved in sex-related work due to a denial of recognizing sex work as work, which makes it more difficult for trafficked women/children to access justice system and rebuild a new life.

With all these undesirable outcomes, there is a need to alter the approach from the vertical to a more horizontal one that encourages the participation of affected women/ children and their community. The inclusion of trafficked returnees as active partners in the community and in national programmes has proven to be effective in both assisting and preventing human trafficking. A recent study on community actions against trafficking of women and children in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia shows that through the active participation of the returnees, prevention and assistance programme can be achieved and sustained quite successfully. Even, the psycho-social trauma can be redressed and overcome in group of returnees where women exchange their experiences of being trafficked, analyse the cause and consequences and then search for remedies by strengthening their identity as trafficked women and regaining their self-esteem. After recovery, women take initiative in informing community members on the tricks and traps of traffickers and in explaining how migration with consent can turn them into bonded, slavery-like situation and forced prostitutes. Their message was powerfully delivered in the forms of indigenous songs and dances. Even women who are still engaged in sex work can also be active partners in anti-trafficking campaign. They make clear distinction between by choice sex workers and trafficked women in forced prostitution. Thereby, while demanding for labour protection to sex workers from the state, they also rescue trafficked women/girls from brothels. Economic assistance might be an entry point to bring women together but in the end women see the need to extend their own space where they can share--in their own words--sorrow and happiness, and where they take an active role in preventing other sisters to experience the same nightmare.


Albeit of efforts at all levels, trafficking of women and children is still growing in magnitude and manifesting in various forms. It is an issue of complexities that needs to tackle from different angles. The target of criminal sanction must be on syndicates that transform voluntary migration of women for any purposes into the situation akin to the modern form of slavery. Dismantling of trafficking networks as included in the Trafficking Protocol and the Convention against Organised Crime must be on top of national and international agenda. Equally important is to ensure and enforce human rights standard for the treatment of trafficked women and children. They are entitled to access to legal redress and civil remedies including compensation for damage done to them.

After nearly two decades of involving in the issue of human trafficking, I came to a conclusion that empowering women and community might be an answer to prevent trafficking of women and children.
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Article Details
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Author:Skrobanek, Siriporn
Publication:Voices of Thai Women
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:May 1, 2003
Previous Article:Editorial note.
Next Article:Discourse on violence against women: the case of marital rape.

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