Six travelers from across the U.S. joined me at the end of 2016 to meet with anti-sex trafficking organizations and survivors of trafficking across Thailand. It was an opportunity to learn first-hand about the problems and solutions to ending child sex trafficking in another context. This was the second Advocacy Journey organized by the nonprofit ECPAT-USA, which is part of ECPAT International’s network protecting children from sexual exploitation in 90 countries.
After we flew nearly 20 hours and more than 8600 miles, we met with the staff at ECPAT’s Bangkok headquarters who provided us with an in-depth look at how child victims of sexual exploitation are often denied justice because of cultural and legal barriers. We learned how travelers and tourists use their unique access to vulnerable children to exploit and abuse them. We heard about the recently published report, “Offenders on the Move” - a global study of sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism.
We also heard a chilling presentation about the growth of online exploitation of children, especially of child abuse imagery (usually called child pornography). The volume of these images being shared around the world has reached unprecedented levels: many individual offenders have been found to possess millions of images. More and more children are being lured with money or gifts by offenders who entice them into creating and sharing indecent photos of themselves.
Many of the most vulnerable children live in migrant communities from Myanmar and Laos, or are from the “stateless” Hill Tribe communities of Northern Thailand. Addiction to methamphetamines has hit families hard in recent years. Children who run away or are thrown out of their homes often end up begging on the street and/or sexually exploited.
The best part of the trip was meeting with activists, service-providing NGOs and law enforcement. We met with the manager of the ECPAT Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct , a cutting-edge project designed to ensure that the industry is doing everything it can to protect children from sexual exploitation. Later, we met with representatives of Accor Hotels, one of the premier international companies that has signed the Code. They briefed us on the child protection activities Accor is undertaking to live up to its commitments under the Code.
We also met with U.S. Embassy staff in Bangkok. They praised the Thai government’s great strides in protecting children from sexual exploitation. Two Child Advocacy Centers recently opened and a third one will open soon. Child Advocacy Centers are child-friendly, victim-focused service centers for children who have been sexually exploited or abused. We met with the staff at one of these, the Hug Project in Chiang Mai and also with Thai law enforcement working to build cases against offenders.
Law enforcement training in how to stop child trafficking has been underway all year in Thailand. Every police region has been directed to develop a victim-support system for trafficked victims, working with NGOs that have expertise in protecting victims. Under a new federal law, the U.S. now informs foreign governments when U.S.-registered sex offenders have bought a plane ticket to their country. Thailand blocks 99 percent of the travelers flagged by the U.S. government. This is, unfortunately, not the case for most governments in Southeast Asia.
In addition, the Thai government has appointed an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (TICAC) to implement a new law making it a crime to possess child sexual abuse imagery. The TICAC, Royal Thai Police and Department of Special Investigation participated in this year’s International Operation Cross Country, which focuses law enforcement operation against individuals and criminal enterprises involved in child exploitation and human trafficking.
Everywhere we went we met inspirational unsung heroes. It was an honor to meet Sompong Srakaew, the founder of the Labour Rights Promotion Network. His organization protects migrant workers in the fishing industry. We were also grateful to meet with two worker-advocates who had been enslaved on fishing boats in the region. Both managed to escape with the help of LPN and have gone on to become leaders in speaking out against labor trafficking.
Two of the most compelling meetings we had were in the north of Thailand, where we met with organizations that help stateless children. Kru Nam of the Baan Krunam Foundation does outreach with street youth and other vulnerable children in Chiang Rai.
We learned about the needs of street children. We visited the orphanage she runs for 48 children in the countryside. We played games with them and were led on a tour by the whole crowd of children. I led a round of “the hokey pokey,” a game that transcends language. One of my best memories of the whole trip is being pulled by the hands by two very enthusiastic youngsters, who were eager to show me around the grounds.
We met with Moo, Founder of the the Mirror Foundation. The Foundation has been successfully fighting for the rights of stateless people from the Hill tribes. Leaders from the Foundation gave our group one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had – meeting with a community of Hmong people, in Northern Thailand. The entire community turned out to meet us because no foreigners had ever come to their village to hear their stories. The village chief and other leaders provided testimony about the challenges they face―as they are not registered as Thai citizens, they are unable get jobs in Thailand or own their land. And while the children can now go to state schools, they cannot get grants and loans to attend college. Our meeting with staff at Urban Light, a group that works with sexually exploited boys in Chiang Mai, confirms the vulnerability of migrant and stateless children.
The tragic stories we heard over our 10 days in Thailand were in sharp contrast to the stunning landscapes and beauty of Thailand. We visited ancient temples and dined on delicious cuisine. After my 25 years of experience at ECPAT-USA, I am fully aware that sexual exploitation of children happens in all countries. But as we boarded the plane to come home, it was hard to reconcile how so many children’s lives could be devastated even in places that seem so peaceful and beautiful. Overall, it was a truly moving, personally enriching and educational journey that strengthened the resolve of each of us to continue fighting for the children who can’t fight for themselves.