Silk scarves billow in the wind, warm and sticky like sweet corn. A woman, presumably Laotian, clothing vibrant, embroidered hot pink and neon green, pours a peach-colored liquid from a platter of some unidentifiable meat into a bucket at her feet. Her face is withdrawn. Eyes downcast. Something about the rain, I think, makes people tired. I wonder, then, if she crosses the Mekong every week, crammed in next to screaming children and weather-worn faces, docking, unloading, her body slung heavy with the bloody canvas sacks. I suppose that’s how you make a living around here. Every Wednesday. Stall up. Stall down. Sitting in amongst those long stringy entrails, smattering plastic sheet drops. She sees me staring, and cracks a wide, toothy grin. It’s no wonder young people want a different kind of life.
Jam Pong Market in Chiang Khong
Hundreds of Laotians travel across the water from rural Laos to participate in the weekly Jam Pong market in Chiang Khong, Thailand. The border crossing is largely unregulated. Three Thai immigration officers sit at the top of a steep set of stairs leading down to the river, inspecting documents at a small plastic table. A similar set-up exists on the other end of the market. But there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason when it comes to border control, and dozens of Laotians (men, women, and children) stream past without inspection, to shop for wares or to set up their own stalls. Center for Girls (CFG), partnered with the Alliance Anti-Traffic, has identified Jam Pong as a strategic place to promote awareness about safe migration and human trafficking.
Human Trafficking along the Mekong
Since Thailand is by far the wealthiest country in the Mekong region, irregular migration is a common trend in Chiang Rai province, which shares borders with Laos PDR and Myanmar. In 2016, there were an estimated three to four million migrant workers in Thailand, many of whom are forced, coerced, or defrauded, as a result of their low socio-economic status and lack of official documents, into over 15 labor sectors, with two-thirds trafficked into three primary industries: sex work, fishing or factory work. Many women are also trafficked into lives of domestic servitude, often as maids or brides, while children are coerced into begging. While the focus of anti-trafficking efforts tends to be on women and children, men are also vulnerable to trafficking, often relegated to dirty, dangerous, and difficult work. While there is a lack of data on human trafficking specific to Chiang Rai province, it can be assumed that trafficking here mirrors trends identified in national statistics.
The Grooming Process
According to UN-ACT, foreign migrants, ethnic minorities, and stateless persons in Thailand are at the greatest risk of being trafficked, because they are largely invisible. As Emily, another volunteer with Center for Girls points out in a recent blog post, traffickers often lure their victims in with what begins as voluntary migration, with false promises of a high-income job, stability, education, or a loving connection. Still, others are sold into trafficking by boyfriends, friends, neighbors, or even parents. Once victims are integrated into trafficking circles, they are subjected to many human rights violations, including physical and sexual violence, threats of harm, restriction of movement, withholding of identity and work documents, debt bondage, illegal salary deductions, and unreasonable working hours (up to 18 hours per day on fishing boats with an average of 13 hours per day for other sectors, 7 days a week).
Anti-Trafficking and Safe Migration
As increasing global migration numbers suggest, people are not going to stop attempting to migrate to improve their lives and the well-being of their families. While the Thai government has promised to focus on five anti-trafficking strategies (policy, prosecution, protection, prevention, and partnership), there is still a long way to go. Center for Girls, in partnership with the Mekong Child Rights Protection Centre, aims to educate and protect the men, women, and children most vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, living along the Thai, Laos, and Myanmar borders of Chiang Rai province. In 2017, Center for Girls will partner with 50 local businesses, to educate employers about human trafficking. CFG will also continue to conduct surveys to gather more information on the state of human trafficking issues in the district.
While I’ve studied the devastating impacts of human trafficking on marginalized populations in both my formal education (UVic Gender Studies Degree) as well as through a work placement with the Malaysian Social Research Institute, an NGO focused on refugee rights in Malaysia, I still find my visit to Jam Pong market eye-opening. I can see, with my own eyes, how easy it would be to move people across largely unregulated borders. As I browse the stalls, a CFG logo displayed prominently on my chest, I notice two young girls, feet bare, playing near a plastic tarpaulin; cupping water in their outstretched hands, smiles bright and inquisitive, water streaming through their fingers. It hurts my heart to know that at some point in the future, like a pair of knock-off Adidas sneakers, these children may be bought and sold along the borders of this same market. Authentic Thai souvenirs.
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