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Calls to curb cross-border human trafficking
( 2003-12-16 11:36) (China Daily HK Edition)

Groups helping Chinese women and children tricked into prostitution or hard labour by cross-border human traffickers note a decline in the number of victims at their shelters - not because the problem is subsiding, but because traffickers are becoming more sophisticated. And promises of a better life are hard to resist.

It's a sensitive topic local government officials and police are reluctant to discuss. Yet it's a reality no one in the border areas of southwestern China's Yunnan Province can deny.

An official checkpoint at the Myanmar-Thai border. A bridge connects Tachileik, a town in Myanmar, with Mae Sai, the northern point of Thailand. Chinese women trafficked to Thailand mostly come over via Myanmar. [China Daily HK Edition]
Evidence includes a newly built two-storey house that stands out among the rows of traditional black-roofed bamboo structures in Manlai Village of Menghai County in Xishuangbanna. The house was built with money Yu Lian (not her real name) saved during her four-year work stint in Malaysia along with that of her sister's.

Yu Lian, of Dai ethnicity, ended up in Malaysia through cross-border human trafficking, recalls the 28-year-old woman who now waits back in her native village for the day she will marry her Taiwanese fiance.

In 1993, a young male villager approached Yu Lian, then 18, and her cousin, and talked them into "buying gold" in Thailand, with all of the travel expenses to be covered by him. Intrigued by his words, the two girls left their home in Menghai, which shares a 146.5-kilometre border with Myanmar to the west and south.

The two girls followed the man along mountain trails all the way from Small Mengla to Kengtung (in Myanmar), "sleeping only when we could walk no more", recounts Yu Lian, who had never been to the county seat before crossing the border.

When they reached Mae Sai on the Thai border after several days of trekking, the girls were handed over to a Thai woman in her 40s. From there they went onto Bangkok and were taken to a nightclub right away.

Only then did the girls realize the true purpose of the trip. With help from other young women already working at the club, some of whom were from Myanmar, Yu Lian and her cousin were able to contact police on their second day in Bangkok. They were sheltered by a child-protection centre on an island for the next two years before Yu was willingly entrusted to the care of a good-natured Malaysian to work for him as a housemaid.

When the Malaysian man died of cancer in 1999, his aunt sought help from the Chinese Embassy and had Yu repatriated back to her home.

Yu, who had received no more than six years of schooling, was not the only one in the village to have fallen into the traps of human traffickers. Her sister, now a tour guide on a deluxe cruise liner taking foreigners to fish in Phuket, Thailand, was tricked into leaving home in 1994.

"She can speak Thai and English," says Yu Lian with pride. "She was tricked by a married couple in the village. We reported them later to police and the couple ran away to Myanmar."

Penetrating border points

Sompop Jantraka (left), an award-winning Thai social worker in the field of child protection, at the Half-Way Home with a Thai official in charge of the shelter for victims of cross-border trafficking. [China Daily HK Edition]
Cross-border human trafficking has been a problem in the border areas of Yunnan since the 1980s when China opened up to the rest of the world, observes Yu Hanbian, an official with the women's federation of Mengzhe Township, Menghai.

"Many people on either side of the border speak the same language and share similar customs. Local residents have been moving fairly freely across the border for a long time," she says. "In Manlai Village alone, seven girls were trafficked to Thailand from 1994 to 1998, mostly via intermediary friends or relatives."

Official figures indicate that a total of 1,041 women from Menghai, which has a population of 293,400, had crossed the border and entered Myanmar by 2000. Many often travelled on to Thailand or even Malaysia. Some went of their own free will, while others were trafficked and suffered a great deal.

A study conducted by the ILO (International Labour Organization) Mekong Sub-Regional Project to Combat Trafficking in Children and Women at the end of 1999 more or less substantiates the figure. According to the study, more than 5,000 rural residents of Menghai, around two-thirds of them women, were leaving their villages to seek work elsewhere every year. Nearly 40 per cent of these migrants sought work outside China.

Many girls from Simao, Lincang and Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan, some 70 per cent of them under 18, have been trafficked to Thailand, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries for sexual exploitation, reveals Xian Yanming, deputy chief of the Yunnan Provincial Public Security Department.

The primary driving force behind the wave of migration, many agree, is poverty. In rural Menghai, the per capita annual income is less than 1,000 yuan (US$120). "I hadn't seen a 50-yuan (US$6) banknote before (I went to Thailand)," admits Yu Lian, who, despite her unpleasant experiences, still thinks earnings in Thailand are much higher than back home.

Besides, says Xian, poor communications with the outside world, a naivete due to poor education and a lack of social experiences all add up to ignorant, trusting young girls falling prey to trafficking.

He cites proximity as another cause, saying "the shortest route from Yunnan to Thailand is only 200 kilometres."

According to Child Workers in Asia, a support group for underaged workers based in Bangkok, many Chinese girls are employed in Thailand, mainly for sexual entertainment purposes.

Vorasakdi Mahatdhanobol, a researcher at Chulalongkorn University, who has worked as a volunteer interpreter for the Centre for the Protection of Children's Rights Foundation (CPCR) in Thailand, found that all of the 35 Chinese women the CPCR rescued from Thai brothels from 1991 to 1993 came from Simao and Xishuangbanna.

"Sightseeing and job offers are the tricks to lure the girls out. Since the China-Myanmar border has no fences or walls, natural barriers such as mountains and rivers can hardly stop the girls from sneaking into foreign lands," Mahatdhanobol writes in his book "Chinese Women in the Thai Sex Trade".

In the seven years up to 1997, the CPCR, through police raids and with insiders' help, rescued 70 Chinese women and children from the Thai flesh trade and co-ordinated efforts with Chinese agencies (including the Chinese Embassy) to repatriate them.

Since 1997, however, the number of such cases handled by the CPCR has dwindled sharply, because "it's much more difficult to get tips on trafficked women and children" as the trafficking networks seem to have become more efficiently organized, reveals Wassana Kaonopparat, a CPCR expert on trafficking.

On the Chinese side, says Yu Hanbian of the Mengzhe Township Women's Federation, the number of people being trafficked now is anyone's guess because very few report to police.

The long way home

The Manlai Village in Menghai, Xishuangbanna, hometown of Yu Lian. Most ethnic Dai people still live in their traditional black-roofed houses. But those who returned from Thailand or other southeast Asian countries have built shining two-storey buildings with their fortunes earned abroad. [China Daily HK Edition]
Nonetheless, Chinese victims sporadically fall into the hands of various Thai NGOs. At The Half-Way Home, a temporary shelter in northern Thailand for cross-border women and children rescued from the commercial sex industry, two ethnic Dai girls (Shan, taken to Myanmar, and Tai-Yai, to Thailand) from Menghai are awaiting verification from the Chinese Consulate in Chiang Rai before they can return home.

The girls, both 16, followed a cousin to find work in Thailand in November 2002 but were caught by Thai Immigration Police, who sent them to the Thai-Myanmar border where they were tricked into working at a local massage parlour. A concerned Thai helped them get to the Home.

Along with an investigation into their backgrounds, the girls benefit from legal and psychological counselling as well as medical treatment at the Home, says Sompop Jantraka, a Thai social worker renowned in the field of child protection. Staff of the Home want to be sure they are sending their charges back to a positive environment.

"Lots of young girls now wait for certain recruitment to come again. This is scary," he says. "The most difficult part is that we don't know the area of China (they come from), the environment, the culture. Otherwise you'd have the confidence to know you were sending someone to someplace safe, a place (where) children can survive."

In China, the Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that traffickers who sell women and children abroad or for sexual exploitation are liable for at least 10 years of imprisonment. However, justice is not easily served if victims file lawsuits years after the trafficking took place, mostly due to insufficient evidence, not to mention those who choose to be silent about what has happened for fear of attracting unwanted "gossip."

Moreover, in the absence of effective law enforcement co-operation between China and the neighbouring countries, the Chinese police are relatively powerless to act against cross-border human trafficking.

Some Thai researchers like Mahatdhanobol suggest that formal co-operation along the lines of an extradition treaty be forged to allow witnesses to cross borders and testify.

Outside appeals

A girl of ethnic Dai stock from a village in Lancang County, south Yunnan's Simao, where high incidences of trafficking to Thailand have been recorded by the police. [China Daily HK Edition]
Chinese sociologists on the other hand call for greater attention to the social overtones of the problem. As Zhang Jie, a researcher in cross-border migration with the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, points out, policies on sustainable development should be diversified with regard to the specific conditions and demands of different localities.

"Modernization is not merely embodied in skyscrapers and highways," she says. "We must guard against the tendency of minority people, who have been at peace with nature for generations, to be marginalized and overwhelmed by mainstream culture in the globalization tide."

In her research, Zhang finds that many women, once trapped into the course of human trafficking abroad, seem to have been so uprooted that they would not feel at home in either place even after they are rescued and repatriated.

Yu Lian, sitting at home in the Menglai Village of Menghai, is not here to stay. She is waiting for her fiance, a Taiwanese doctor she met in Thailand, to take her away. He has been mailing her an allowance every month. She says her sister "is no longer used to life here" either.

"These girls and their material possessions may arouse envy among other girls in their village. But their marriages and futures are uncertain," says Zhang, who appeals for government co-operation to check the ever-rising rate of labour emigration into Thailand.

On the domestic front, Liu Meng, a professor with the social work department of the China Women's University based in Beijing, says the government should take the trafficking problem seriously and look it straight in the eye before it gets out of hand.

"You can hardly resist the impact of external influences and foreign lifestyles, which may be reinforced by China's opening up," she says. "Unless you develop quickly and well, you cannot expect people to stay in their homeland contentedly."

Until then, she says, "what we can do is provide potential migrants information on self-protection, the prevention of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, and practical skills training."

With the Kunming-Bangkok highway slated to be completed in 2006 and eventually connected to the road networks of Malaysia and Singapore, both Chinese and Thai researchers fear that the existing undercurrent of cross-border crime will flourish further.

This story was written under the IPS-Rockefeller Media Fellowship Programme - Our Mekong: A Vision Amid Globalization .

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