In Thailand, a struggle to halt human trafficking

Some say 'rescued' prostitutes may be there voluntarily

It was a warm and sticky Friday night when investigators swooped into one of this provincial capital's back-street brothels searching for women and children trafficked from neighboring Burma. Within hours the raid was over, and the owner of the brothel was in police custody. Investigators say weeks of surveillance and covert visits paid off: six of the 29 women rescued were minors and more than half had been coerced into their work. But not everyone was relieved.

Local migrant advocacy groups say the Chiang Mai raid, like other actions taken against human trafficking, had netted Burmese women voluntarily engaged in prostitution. Now, they say, those women may be worse off than before.

These groups accuse the US-funded antitrafficking task force that led the raid of steamrolling women's rights and treating all sex workers as victims. "The women didn't feel like they were rescued because they lost their money.... They felt like they were trapped," says Hseng Noung, of the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), who interviewed ethnic Shan women detained in the raid. "Being forced to work physically is one thing, but these women were forced to work by their situation."

As concern mounts over the global scale of human trafficking, which the State Department has called "the emerging human rights issue of the 21st century," the US and other wealthy nations are lending more support to antitrafficking initiatives in countries like Thailand. But the increasing friction between these US- sponsored task forces and the local groups they rely on for information could make it harder for them to root out abuses.

The State Department defines human trafficking as modern-day slavery with victims who are forced, defrauded, or coerced into sexual or labor exploitation. According to their figures, the US has spent more than $100 million on overseas antitrafficking aid since October 2000, when Congress first passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. They estimate that 800,000 to 900,000 people are trafficked annually across international borders - numbers disputed by outside researchers. The United Nation Children's Fund says one-third of global trafficking in women and children happens in Southeast Asia.

But researchers and field workers who know Thailand's entrenched sex industry say that cases of outright slavery, where women are sold into bondage and forced to work, are dwarfed by desperate stories of poverty and exploitation. Many are more wary of the gung-ho brothel busts that land women in detention than of the traffickers who profit from the trade.

Thailand's handling of migrant women caught in trafficking raids has improved in recent years. The women, typically from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and southern China, are no longer treated as criminals or deported through normal channels. All 29 women rescued in Chiang Mai were transferred to a government-run shelter, and many have since been repatriated to Burma via a private network. That's little comfort, though, to those who never wanted to be rescued in the first place.

"It's our aim to concentrate on victims of human trafficking, but it's not always possible ... because of the intermingling of different groups in a sexual establishment," says Ben Svasti, coordinator of Trafcord, a joint task force formed with US support last year to tackle human trafficking in northern Thailand. "It's hard to figure out who are the victims."

Angered by recent raids, SWAN and other nonprofit groups that assist migrant women and sex workers are balking at the prospect of working with Trafcord, which relies on local tips to uncover abuses.

Mr. Svasti says he recognizes the concerns of these groups but insists that women's rights are protected as much as possible.

The next big step, say campaigners, is to bring to justice criminals who profit from human trafficking. Traffickers who go unpunished typically round up more women to replace those who have been rescued. Only by squeezing the criminal networks that supply bonded labor can Thailand hope to stem the flow of victims.

But the rescued women on their way home to Burma may not stay there for long. Activists say it's not uncommon for women to return to Thailand, whether because of unpaid debts or poor prospects at home. Svasti says he's heard of the same migrant sex workers being rescued from brothels two or three times.

In Burma, prospects for women are grim: SWAN has documented a campaign of systematic rape of ethnic Shan women by Burmese soldiers, a charge denied by the ruling junta. Faced with such abuses, being put in the hands of traffickers may be the lesser evil, says Hseng Noung.

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