Child slavery, especially in the form of child sex tourism, is a slowly unfolding disaster. Thailand’s resort town of Pattaya has more expat paedophiles than anywhere in the world, both abusing children and producing pornography.
Unfortunately, various efforts made to combat sexual exploitation of children in Thailand are made in isolation. To better tackle this problem, there is a need for greater collaboration and information sharing among organisations and coalitions working on anti-trafficking.
We need to solve the long-standing systemic challenges that Thailand faces by devising a comprehensive national strategy for child exploitation prevention and interdiction. This effort should be built on the existing sense of urgency and especially on international partnerships.
In past years, human trafficking in Thailand has been front-page news. However, as one of the first countries to bring the issue of human trafficking to the world stage in the early 1990s, we should not forget Thailand’s past achievements, including the passing of the 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act. This year’s upgrade of Thailand from Tier III on the US Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) to Tier II (Watch List) holds out hope for Thailand making further improvements.
Throughout the country, there are many individuals and organisations committed to anti-trafficking work including raising awareness, legal and policy reform, and victim support and prevention. Combating child sex tourism is also part of their crucial efforts. The sexual exploitation of children is worsening because of cheaper international travel and the exchange of information regarding child victims’ locations by sexual predators via the internet. The US Department of State estimates that over one million children are being sexually exploited globally.
Sexual exploitation of children is often doubly illegal. As well as being subject to local laws, it can be prosecuted in the perpetrator’s country of origin. For instance, in the US the 2003 Federal PROTECT Act fortified the prosecution and imprisonment of criminals and removed the statute of limitations on child abuse.
In 2008, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched its Child Sex Tourism Initiative to investigate and prosecute these crimes and to provide victims with services. This initiative now works alongside law enforcement and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Thailand.
Until recently, Thailand faced a specific problem with combating child sexual slavery. Prosecuting offenders required a victim’s testimony, so charges were frequently dropped or never filed.
However, in late 2015 Thailand passed a law against the possession of child pornography, allowing digital evidence to speak for the victims. This law also benefits the newly established Thailand Internet Crimes against Children task force (TICAC), supported by the FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security, and designed to share intelligence.
Utilising a US model, TICAC combats sexual exploitation facilitated via the internet. For instance, Thai law enforcement officials just started working directly with the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children to share real-time information about victims and offenders. Once victims are detected, the next step is providing them with assistance, standard practice for the FBI since 2001. Victim assistance is not just the morally correct course of action: it provides information that helps police more effectively investigate lawbreakers. That increases the chances that abusers will be imprisoned.
To maintain the trend in favour of publicly taking a stand against slavery in Thailand, it is necessary to critically examine the status quo. For example, diverse relevant data is available. It can be found within the legal community, among NGOs, and from the victims themselves. But, there are four basic challenges to effectively using this information. First, no standardised data collection format exists. Second, there is no centralised data repository to analyse and disseminate it. Third, organisations may resist sharing data for fear it would give others a funding advantage. Finally, some groups do not appreciate the value of utilising good data.
This missed opportunity means many anti-trafficking efforts of various organisations and coalitions are being conducted in isolation. Beyond the larger cities, such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Pattaya, which often have coalitions, there is a need for more collaboration to overcome inter-agency differences in perspectives and approaches. Basically, the counter-trafficking community needs to spend more time understanding, analysing, visualising and planning a way forward together.
Jointly devising programmes increases efficiency and effectiveness. For example, a programme that addresses the needs of a person from the point at which he or she escapes the exploitation to the time when he or she is settled in a stable living situation is essential. NGO activities need to be linked together to address the needs of a trafficked child. For example, one NGO can offer a shelter to provide healthcare, counselling, and food. A good example of this is Haven Children’s Home in Pattaya, funded by the international NGO A21.
Once this process is completed, another NGO can offer support to travel with the victim to their home or community, if possible, to attempt to restore a normal life situation. Another NGO could then provide regular follow-up care to identify sustained needs, such as education. This can help to offer an ongoing, personalised support system. The child can then be assisted in countering the vulnerabilities that resulted in his or her being trafficked. If these services are not connected, children might be vulnerable to being re-trafficked.
This victim assistance-oriented approach is now taking off. One notable government initiative in Thailand is the recently opened Child Advocacy Centre in Chiang Mai, the first of its type in Southeast Asia. Adapted from US models, the centre provides shelter and resources for victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse. The centre aims to offer “one-stop care” for victims, including access to counsellors or lawyers, after-school programmes, and basics such as food.
In April, following a bilateral agreement, Thai police generals were among over 100 members of law enforcement and NGOs to receive training from the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance. The Royal Thai Police now aims to allocate victim specialists to every major police force in the country, providing a victim-oriented approach to investigations.
This approach both improves the quality of prosecution and better helps victims become involved in seeing that justice is done, as witnesses and as recovering children. The next step is to conduct further FBI co-training of the police’s victim-witness coordinators.
As we develop best practices in Thailand, we need to propagate this approach throughout Southeast Asia, transforming Thailand into a safe haven for children.
Matt Friedman is an international human trafficking expert. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.