Trafficking is a systemic problem in Thailand. The country has a Tier 3 ranking in the Trafficking in Persons report, a fact which horrifies a government that’s seemingly powerless to make change. Despite their efforts, a booming sex trade and industries built on slavery pay witness to the sheer number of humans working in abusive and exploitative conditions. Being trafficked could happen to anyone, but vast numbers of refugees from Burma, economic migrants from Cambodia and Laos, and ethnic minority hill tribes are particularly vulnerable.
There is no question that something has to be done.
But trafficking prevention is sometimes seen as a second priority, less important than 'rescuing' trafficked people. It’s understandable because our hearts go out to those trapped in horrible situations, and we want to help get them out. There’s also something of a heroic aura around those working to help trafficked people: they go undercover, they organise raids, they ‘rescue.’ Prevention may not have quite the same glow. But we believe that it is even more vital.
That’s not to say that organisations taking people out of trafficking aren’t necessary. Many of these groups battle tirelessly for justice and help individuals restore their freedom, dignity and strength. We admire and appreciate them immensely. But wouldn’t it be great if those organisations weren’t needed? If young men and women were no longer vulnerable, traffickers would be out of a job and so would the organisations trying to take them down. That’s exactly the outcome we want to see. So we fight trafficking where it makes the most difference: before it's even happened.
The more we learn about how trafficking works, the more we realise how urgent prevention is. Young people are pushed into exploitative work for a host of - often heartbreakingly understandable - reasons. A mother sends her oldest child to work in the city so that she can send money home to pay for schooling for her siblings. She doesn’t know that the job her daughter was offered wasn’t what it seemed. A single mother is forced into sex work because she hasn’t the education or skills to provide for her child in other ways. A refugee, desperate to support his parents, goes to work in a plantation, but he’s never paid. These are situations with which we are all too familiar.
We want to take away the apparent helplessness that drive these decisions. We want to encourage dignity, ambition and independence in at-risk communities, providing young people and families with the skills and knowledge they need to defend themselves against traffickers. And that is slow work. It may not be glamorous, but it’s invaluable, because it saves people from facing the trauma of exploitation and abuse in the first place. You see, even if someone’s ‘rescued’ from being trafficked, the trauma resulting from their experiences is often so deep and so complex, it is impossible to undo. A person suffering from psychological, emotional and perhaps even physical wounds is just as vulnerable as before, if not more so.
It works, too. A stable and educated community is a safe one. That’s why we pour resources into education, both supporting local schools and running our own outreach workshops on sex ed, human rights and health. Our training scheme is another way we equip girls to protect themselves, by giving them key skills that will be transferable in the careers market. Investing in mothers with our artisan project also empowers the community, as study after study has shown that mothers pour their wealth back into their families. And our mobile clinic helps to stave off the kind of emergencies that breed desperate choices. Always we put the focus on the individual’s agency, their independence and self-determination: we can’t save them, but they can save themselves.
And these young women, these mothers, these families, are doing just that.