Is Thailand ready to tackle child sex trafficking?
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Is Thailand ready to tackle child sex trafficking?

THE CONVICTION of 62 individuals in Thailand largest human-trafficking trial, including an army general, police officers, local politicians and other influential individuals, indicates that Thailand has the systems, procedures and willingness to tackle human trafficking.

With the criminals in this landmark case successfully brought to justice, Thailand may now be ready to begin tackling child sex traffickers who continue to destroy the lives of vulnerable children from Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, hill tribes communities and impoverished families.

Alongside the sexual abuse and the loss of childhood these traffickers inflict on their victims, their criminal activities also blight Thailand’s international reputation. An apparent lack of impetus to crack down on these criminal networks remains a reason for Thailand’s poor ranking in the US Department of State’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which was unveiled by the US Secretary of State in June.

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The TIP documents report that “Thailand is a source, destination and transit country for men, women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking.”

“Members of ethnic minorities, highland persons, and stateless persons in Thailand have experienced instances of abuse indicative of trafficking. Children from Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia are victims of sex trafficking in brothels, massage parlors, bars, karaoke lounges, hotels, and private residences.” 

One reason that child sex traffickers have been able to continue their operations in Thailand is that these trafficking syndicates are often protected through corrupt oversight by local authorities.

Although prostitution is illegal in Thailand, and has been for 70 years, the country’s sex trade is worth an estimated Bt217 billion (US$6.4 billion) and in many parts of the country operates in plain sight. This huge industry operates unhindered by the laws which prohibit these practices, while the number of offenders convicted remains woefully small.

In Thailand’s vast unlicensed and unregulated sex-industry, the prostitution and abuse of children is effortlessly concealed, as the ongoing case of child sex trafficking in Mae Hong Son demonstrates.

In the Mae Hong Son sex trafficking case government officials and police officers are accused of running an underage prostitution ring. The case now involves 29 instances of modern slavery, seven of buying sex services, the ownership of 11 brothels by a police officer, and the gang rape of a minor by three police officers.

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Thai policeman at Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, Thailand, March 2015. Source: Shutterstock / Settawat Udom

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This sordid case provides a insight into the world of child sex-trafficking which is usually kept hidden from the public. The case also provides examples of how individuals in authority abuse their positions of power, and how vulnerable young people can be coerced into the sex trade.

With allegations of government officials routinely offered sex with underage girls as part of a “serving dessert to the bosses tradition” it is no surprise that the victims of these crimes feel unable to approach the authorities for help. Investigations into child sex trafficking are often hindered by individuals in positions of authority, as detailed in the 2017 TIP Report:

“Corruption continues to undermine anti-trafficking efforts. Reports persist that some government officials are directly complicit in trafficking crimes, including through accepting bribes from business owners and brothels where victims are exploited. Migrant workers, especially those who are undocumented, are fearful of reporting trafficking crimes and cooperating with authorities.”

“Some government officials reportedly profit from bribes and direct involvement in the extortion of migrants and their sale to brokers.”

“Credible reports indicate some corrupt officials protect brothels and other commercial sex venues from raids and inspections and collude with traffickers.”

During a raid on Nataree Massage Parlour in Bangkok last year, evidence of corruption and collusion between sex-trafficker and authorities was also found. When the brothel was raided in June 2016, fifteen children from Myanmar were rescued, and a ledger of bribe payments to government agencies and police units was found.

Details in the ledger included – “Tourism Police, 10,000; 191 Emergency Police, 25,000; Special Branch Police, 30,000; Huai Khwang Detective Police, 24,000; Immigration, 76,000.”  The raid resulted in the conviction of seven individuals who were found guilty of human trafficking and child prostitution charges.  

Unfortunately, the Mae Hong Son case and the Nataree case remain rare examples of child sex traffickers actually facing prosecution, and many experts believe these cases are just the tip of the iceberg, with the number of child prostitutes in Thailand estimated at over 30,000.

If Thailand genuinely intends to tackle child sex trafficking, it will need to take a far more proactive approach towards this problem, enlisting investigators and law enforcement officials who have not been corrupted by trafficking syndicates, while prosecuting officials complicit in trafficking.

A recent initiative established in Southern Thailand could be an important step towards tackling child sex trafficking more effectively. Thailand’s first Child Advocacy Centre in Southern Thailand opened in Phuket on 2nd June. This center aims to spearhead a multi-agency campaign against human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children, as Darren Herbold, Director of For Freedom International (FFI) explained:

“In response to the Thai government’s national policy to suppress the crime of human-trafficking and child sexual exploitation, the Royal Thai Police’s Thailand Internet Crime Against Children (TICAC) is partnering with the For Freedom International Foundation (FFI), the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security with the aim to create a safe and child-friendly environment where child victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation are able to speak to a trained forensic interviewer about trauma that the child has experienced or witnessed.”

“Our foundation is privileged to be able to support Thai law enforcement as they seek to suppress human trafficking. The FFI Foundation exists to support families and children from exploitation. We also seek to support the Thai government and law enforcement, specifically TICAC, as they work diligently to suppress human trafficking.”

In Northern Thailand, Wirawan Mosby, who recently received the Trafficking in Persons Hero Award from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, spearheaded the opening of the Chiang Mai-based Children’s Advocacy Centre, which was established to give treatment, support and shelter to young victims of sexual abuse.

Since February 2016, the Children’s Advocacy Center in Chiang Mai has helped prevent at-risk children from becoming trafficked, provided support to those who have escaped trafficking and supported more than 81 investigations. The team at the center are credited with facilitating the arrest of more than 20 people connected to human trafficking.

Alongside the establishment of centers to support child victims of sexual abuse, Thailand has also made important steps towards tackling the growing threat of cyber sex crimes. This has been done by amending the Criminal Law stipulating penalties for the possession and distribution of child pornography, and through formal collaboration with U.S. State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

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The Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (TICAC) which was established in December 2015, now works directly with the FBI and HSI to access the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) database. The sharing of information on these cases often leads to human trafficking investigations and prosecutions.

In order for Thailand to make more progress against individuals who sexually exploit and abuse young people, there also needs to be greater public awareness about these heinous crimes and much greater empathy and support for victims, rather than the culture of victim blaming, which supports the crimes of paedophiles.

Thailand has taken an important step towards correcting its previously poor record on tackling modern slavery, and the country is developing the necessary networks and procedures to tackle those involved in child sex trafficking. Hopefully these resources will be utilised to free more children from sexual abuse, and determinedly pursue those individuals who inflict these appalling crimes on young people.