Slavery and statelessness, and its forgotten victims

When we think about the abolition of slavery, we often think about the courage of William Wilberforce and the anti-slavery movement in America. We think of how humans have progressed from the abuse and racism that undergirds the violence of slavery, and we feel a sense of history in how we have progressed so far.

I have only realised over the last few months how I was so wrong- utterly and completely wrong-  to think that slavery ended when it was ‘formally’ abolished in some parts of the world.  I was jarred out of my sense of security that one chapter of ‘progress’ was completed and that we can now focus on other battles when I attended a Justice Acts meeting and read the phrase “Slavery still exists”.  Slavery still exists?

It wasn’t until recently that I really got to understand a bit more of what this slavery looks like.  Slavery is sometimes referred to as human trafficking where people are forced into prostitution, exploitative labour (on fishing boats or as domestic help where the ‘maids’ have their identification documents taken and they have their freedom restricted) or forced begging (see See UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Woman and Children (2000) for the complete legal definition). Human trafficking is a serious violation of human rights and I now know why.

Statelessness explained

Some statistics note that human trafficking is the third most lucrative industry, after the drugs and arms trade, at (a minimum of) USD 60 billion a year. According to the Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities Centre in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (DEDPC-GMS, see http://www.depdc.org/) , what is called the ‘blood sucker cycle’ often starts in parts of the world where people find themselves in vulnerable positions. For example, I visited the Burma/Thailand border of Mae Ai where thousands of people are considered stateless, because :

(1)    they were Burmese who crossed the hills into Thailand;

(2)    they were hill people who lived on the border of Burma and Thailand and it is not clear whether they were born on the Thai part of the border;

(3)    they have at some point been recognised as Thai citizens but due to law changes, lost their citizenship; or

(4)    are children of the 1243 people who fell in the category 3.

Being stateless is one factor that places some people in a greater position of vulnerability. Stateless people, like some Lisu and Lahu hill tribe living in Mae Ai or the Akka people in Mae Sae, are unable to access basic healthcare which is afforded all Thais under Thaksin’s 30 baht healthcare plan (you only pay Rm3 or NZD1 to access the hospital services). The only way to obtain healthcare is to pay for the full hospital costs yourself, obviously a challenge for many stateless people. We accidentally met a lady yesterday at one of the Mae Ai villages who had a right leg that was festering with gangrene due to her diabetes…not very attractive.

Stateless people have also for a long time been deprived of public education. This only changed recently due to the initiative of people like former senator Tuenjai Deetes who lobbied for free education for anyone with an identity card, including cards that state you are not recognised as a Thai citizen yet but are a ‘legal illegal’, to access free education until secondary level).

Senator Tuenjai Deetes

But most importantly, statelessness significantly limits your ability to work legally and earn an income to support your family. This has resulted in the odd effect of some stateless youth growing up and attaining university degrees but unable to work as a (ie) lawyer or economist because they are not legally recognised. It is not uncommon for these qualified youths to resort to menial jobs just to survive. For those not as privileged to have education, the future is even bleaker. Clearly, poverty from opportunity and the insecurity that comes from being stateless puts many hill tribe people in positions of vulnerability.

Thankfully, there are many courageous people like Boon Pongma who started the Mae Ai Legal Clinic and assists people in the process of being recognised as a Thai citizen. She was one of the 1243 village people (category 3 above) who lost her citizenship due to an unusual law change and is now helping others in the process of becoming legally recognised as a Thai. Her challenge nowadays is not so much helping the other 1243 villagers in their fight for legal recognition (as they were legally Thai in the past) but the children of these 1243 villagers who do not automatically inherit their parent’s citizenship due to a legal loophole. These youths have fallen through the cracks and are exposed to many forms of risk.

Mae Ai Legal Clinic in North Thailand- fighting for the right to be recognised as a Thai citizen. These three girls are/have been stateless people but fortunately Nhor (far left) obtained a Bachelors in English and See (middle) obtained a law degree. However, statelessness means they cannot be employed.

Statelessness and human trafficking

Enter the issue of human trafficking. Whether because they were tricked by human trafficking agents, or because families willingly gave their children to trafficking agents (in the hopes that their children will send money back home), children (girls as well as boys) from as young as 10 (perhaps even younger) are taken from their homes and forced into labour elsewhere in their country or even overseas (including places like the USA where slavery and human trafficking is illegal).  Thailand has the unfortunate status of being a country that is a source, transit and destination of human trafficking. This means that :

(1)    people like the hill tribes in North Thailand can provide human trafficking rings with a source of ‘human capital’ (they are a source of supply for human trafficking);

(2)    people from neigbouring countries like Burma, Laos and China (the Yunan province) transit through Thailand’s porous borders and to other destinations, and

(3)    illegally trafficked people from many countries are brought into Thailand as their final destination, whether as a supply of workers for the sex industry (and to service locals and sex tourists) or for other dangerous occupations.

Focussing only on the prostitution side of human trafficking, I was shocked to discover that there are statistics of 25% of prostitutes being under the age of 18 in Thailand. Sometimes they are given fake ID cards that inflate their age so as to redeem any sense of guilt on the part of their customers (if they go so far as to enquire into age).

Thankfully, DEDPC-GMS is one organisation that focuses on the supply side of the human trafficking chain. In order to limit the sources of human capital to feed human trafficking industries, they work on rescuing children from trafficking rings, educating them so that they do not fall prey to ill-intentioned human trafficking agents (who make false promises of better futures in the ‘big city’), providing vocational training and also raising public awareness through the Child Voice Radio which is managed by children rehabilitated or educated by DEDPC. These ‘youth DJs’ work at educating their peers within a 30km radius (some parts of  Burma, Laos and Thailand) of the factors that put them at risk of human trafficking and has an audience of up to 50,000 listeners. Clearly, it is very important to work on educating people of how they can easily fall prey.

At DEDPC-GMS Child Voice Radio Station. This 15 year old DJ was on air for the first time today!

‘The Bloodsucker cycle’

However, human trafficking has a very insidious side to it in that many people are implicated in its vibrancy as an industry. The ‘blood sucker cycle’ demonstrates that it is not only the middle men (who source people for prostitution or forced labour) and the pimps involved in the human trafficking cycle, but families, village headsmen, police, border control, teachers, religious institutions like temples, mafia, and the customers all play a crucial role. Human trafficking rings are as live and well in the ‘Western world’ as it is in Asia and one needs to ask the question why. Often the issue of a long and porous border makes it hard to control the illegal people movement, but just as often, police and border officers willingly allow human trafficking operations to continue…but at a fee of course. While it is not common (but not unknown) for monks to be involved directly in Thailand, often they are indirectly involved purely because middle men visiting villages provide false alibis that they are touring the villages because they are visiting a local temple or trying to achieve merit. Teachers are involved when they choose not to inquire into the whereabouts of their students when told that ‘they are now working in Bangkok’. Human trafficking touches all of us, directly and indirectly. Growing up in Malaysia, it was not uncommon to read about prostitutes from neighbouring countries but it was rarely questioned as to how such non-Malaysians managed to enter the country. We assumed the worst of ‘these people’ and that they chose such work. Moreover, the attitude towards such illegal migrants was to look down upon them as lesser than humans and to refer to them as ‘those Indonesian/Filipino workers…you can’t trust them’. Through my silence and apathy, I also aided slavery.

The Blood sucker cycle showing the spiral of people implicitly involved human trafficking

I am not too sure how to deal with the harrowing accounts of girls being transported to brothels where they are systematically raped for weeks so that they are mentally broken and no longer fight back. I feel a deep sense of sorrow knowing that this is not only a common practice but that often these girls (and boys, as they is a growing demand for young boys) have their identification cards taken away (if they are lucky to possess one) and told that they cannot leave until they have repaid their debt. Debt? The debt is what has been paid to transport the victim from home to the final destination, whether as bribes to officials by the middle men or as bribes to taxi drivers for transporting them across the border, but can also include the purported cost of living in a brothel. Their freedom is restricted and they are forced into an unjust state of debt and slavery.

This week, I count myself blessed. I am a citizen of a country that is supposed to protect my legal rights.  I have an education that teaches me my basic rights as a human being. I am not living in poverty which puts me at risk of slavery and prostitution. But you know what? If I was born to another family, the opposite could easily be true for me. Slavery and statelessness could be all I know, as I remain forgotten by the world.

“By recognizing the task of combating trafficking, you are saying to the world that the suffering and the agony of children and women victims matters, and that there is an urgent need to rescue, assist and empower them. Their lives are as important as our own lives; they must be set free from horrific exploitation.”- Dr. Saisuree Chutikul, Former Cabinet Minister and Senator, Thailand

I hope that God’s grace is sufficient for me- that I may see the voiceless and victims as by brothers and sisters, and that I will have a soft heart to remember them rather than be blinded by apathy.

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Comments
8 Responses to “Slavery and statelessness, and its forgotten victims”
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