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Thailand, US must stop scapegoating migrant sex workers

Every year migrant women are rounded up and deported to show the Kingdom is tough on trafficking

Noi Apisuk and Liz Hilton for Bangkok Post

Noi Apisuk and Liz Hilton for Bangkok Post

Updated: April 24, 2015 05:00 PM GMT
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Thailand, US must stop scapegoating migrant sex workers

Young women including Lao nationals cover their faces as they are rescued from a brothel last month in Suphan Buri, Thailand (Apichit Jinakul/Bangkok Post)

Every year without fail for over a decade, Thailand has been scolded by the United States for not doing enough to comply with US anti-trafficking and border control policies in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report card.

To show that Thailand is doing its job to tackle human trafficking in the sex industry, every year a few hundred migrants, mostly young women, are rounded up, detained and deported as victims of human trafficking.

Every year, we can also expect routine announcements of a crackdown to end human trafficking. Yet the problem persists.

Instead of following the failed responses to the issues of migrant labor and human trafficking of the past, this government should find new ways to tackle the problem. The powers-that-be should consider how people who have fled hardship in their home countries to seek better lives here could be assisted, not further punished by detention and deportation. They should also find more humane solutions that minimize exploitation of migrant labor and solve labor problems for all workers, no matter where they are from or what type of work they do.

This year we have already seen the death of a woman who was among 97 other people crammed into a closed truck. The already dangerous journey from Myanmar was made worse by the need to avoid anti-trafficking patrols. We have not learned her name or anything about her, but we can assume she fled her home in the hope of building a better life. 

At present, moving and finding work is made difficult under the law intended for the downtrodden. The process involves a lot of paperwork, money and time. You need birth certificates, identity papers, proof of a bank account, invitation or offer of work and so on. Even under the law there is no guarantee that you will not be refused or exploited later. People trying to escape bad situations back home often do not have the required documents, time or opportunities to take the correct steps under the law.

For them, paying a broker is like going to a one-stop service center. It will be quicker, there is no refusal and no need for all the paperwork. Under current immigration and work policies, people trying to escape bad situations have little choice but to take a risk on a broker.

It will never be possible to use harsh laws and punishment to stop people moving across borders for better lives. People fleeing hardships — whether these are caused by abuses, natural disasters or poverty — need assistance, not punishment. 

All people should be able to receive humanitarian assistance. Last month, a rescue took place in Suphan Buri province. It is alleged that a 14-year-old girl made a phone call to a foundation's hotline on December 1 asking for help for herself and her 15-year-old sister who were working in forced labor in a karaoke bar.

The help she was asking for took six weeks to arrive. It is a long time to wait for freedom while having to endure forced labor and abuse. Now, after six weeks, she will have to go through the interrogation process and other indignities. Another 70 women were arrested as well, whether they wanted this "help" or not.

The military government could ensure humane assistance is provided to people affected by trafficking. In the Suphan Buri raid, for example, the 70 women who are identified as "witnesses" should be protected and compensated according to the Witness Protection Law rather than being locked up in police cells and then being deported empty handed as is happening now.

When such women are sent to government shelters for breaking the Suppression of Prostitution Act, as government welfare reports explain, the majority of them wish to run away, and some try to escape. 

For the witnesses who choose to stay in detention, they are given some vocational training. This is a measure to help them quit sex work. But with no income prospects, most return to sex work again when the detention period ends.

The military takes pride in its expertise in helping victims of natural disasters. If the military views people affected directly or as a consequence of trafficking the same way they do with people affected by natural disasters, they may be able to design humane long-term solutions that improve life for everyone.

When it comes to the US anti-trafficking agenda, one issue underpinning it is the desire to abolish prostitution. In Thailand there have been many attempts to wipe out prostitution, beginning with the enactment of the first anti-prostitution law in 1960.

However, in practice, sex workers become scapegoats and are arrested to show the anti-prostitution law is working. It is the same with the anti-human trafficking law.

While those who are forced into sex work must get help, those who enter sex work independently must receive protection for their rights.

Just as importantly the "American headmaster" who issues the TIP report card must be made to understand the reality of people's lives.

The US must uphold the rights, safety and wellbeing of people affected by its policies or by human trafficking.

Noi Apisuk is director of the Empower Foundation, an advocacy group of sex workers' rights. Liz Hilton is the Empower coordinator based in Chiang Mai.

Originally published in the Bangkok Post on March 2, 2015. Reused with permission.

Original story: US, Thailand must end scapegoating

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