Thailand’s Sex Trafficking Figures Suspect?

Few issues in Thailand are as emotive as sex trafficking, which activists say is a growing problem despite the millions of dollars spent on tackling it each year.

At least 80,000 women and girls are supposedly trafficked into Thailand’s sex industry annually, some claim, with children as young as eight locked up in brothels and forced to service up to 20 men a day. Poor hilltribe families in the north are said to frequently sell their daughters into the flesh trade, seeing this as “a quick way to obtain material goods that designate social status.”

The problem, however, is that the figures simply don’t add up, nor do the horrifying, heart-wrenching stories stand up to scrutiny. Critics say anti-trafficking activists often have a “white savior complex,” are self-serving, routinely inflate statistics, deliberately conflate the separate issues of trafficking and prostitution, and in general do far more harm than good.

Indeed, there are now “more women in the Thai sex industry who are being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women being exploited by traffickers,” according to the Empower Foundation, a group of Thai and migrant sex workers.

In fact, according to David Feingold, the former head of UNESCO’s regional anti-trafficking project, if women and children are sold by their families into sexual slavery, or subjected to horrifying abuse, they are fortunately rare, isolated cases – as they are in the west.

Feingold, a US anthropologist who has studied Thailand’s hill tribes for decades, likens much of the discussion of human trafficking to “Victorian redemptive pornography,” with its focus on lurid tales involving the degradation of women and children.

“I’m not saying that there are no bad hill tribe families, but the whole idea that hill tribe people are just sitting around waiting to sell their children is utterly ludicrous and racist,” he said. As for statistics, many people simply “stop critical thought when it comes to something like sex trafficking.”

“Trafficking” is itself a contentious term that has been defined in various ways. A simple, commonly used definition is that it involves movement by means of deception or coercion into an exploitative situation.

This does occur on a large scale in Thailand where, for example, many migrant men from Burma and Cambodia are forced to work extremely long hours for very low pay on fishing boats. Men and women are also trafficked into various other sectors including agriculture, manufacturing and domestic service. And trafficking does occur in the sex industry - which, as Feingold points out, is no freer than those other sectors.

However, it occurs on nothing like the scale that some groups claim, and Feingold – probably the world’s foremost authority on human trafficking in Southeast Asia – declined to even speculate on the numbers. However, he says the inflated figures and stories propagated by some anti-trafficking groups are “stupid” and “disgusting,”

“People often look at trafficking as bad men leading good girls astray,” he says, but in reality “most trafficking is migration gone terribly wrong,”

Indeed, the vast majority of sex workers - in Thailand and elsewhere - enter the trade voluntarily, though some may be compelled by circumstances.

“People usually don’t wake up and say okay, I’m going to start selling sexual services tomorrow. They don’t really see it as a job possibility,” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University who has spent years studying the industry. “It’s usually a question of drift. They drift into it, at the high end and the low end, in the Third World and the First World; you have this gradual involvement in sex for sale.”

Weitzer and other academics trace the crusade against sex trafficking back to the 1990s and the emergence of an unholy alliance between conservative Christians and “abolitionist” feminists who view all prostitution as violence against women and call for stricter controls on the sex industry. Opposed to these are sex workers themselves, and mainstream feminists who see sex work as a labour issue and call for greater decriminalization.

Some prominent anti-trafficking activists rose to positions of influence in Washington policymaking circles, and government funding for such projects soared under the administration of president George W. Bush. NGOs previously involved in other areas scrambled to reposition themselves as dedicated fighters against sex trafficking, and other groups sprang up to join the new moral crusade.

As it developed into a full-blown moral panic, some of these groups made outlandish claims – one said there are 800,000 child prostitutes in Thailand – and lazy or gullible journalists dutifully repeated them. Dubious comparisons are often drawn with the 19th century transatlantic slave trade, while others assert that human trafficking is the world’s second or third-largest organised crime enterprise, along with drug smuggling and arms trafficking.

These is no evidence to support these claims, which often develop a life of their own and get regurgitated by media, other government agencies and so on, Weitzer said. He points to the “very thinly veiled anti-prostitution agenda” of some anti-trafficking groups, and says those who question them are frequently accused of being in league with traffickers, as he has experienced himself.

“I can’t think of any other social problem where it’s so polarized and where there are so many claims that have little or no empirical basis,” he says. “It’s just remarkable to me. But it’s because the money has been channelled in one direction and you’ve got the [white saviour] mentality where you’ve got these reformers, rescuers out there who are out to save the world, and probably some of them believe their ideology. They believe that there are many, many victims and they need to be mobilised to stop it.”

Victims of other forms of labour trafficking, who frequently suffer serious abuses and far outnumber those trafficked into the sex industry, are too often overlooked amid the relentless focus on sex and prostitution. The “rescue industry” is now big business, especially in Thailand and neighbouring Cambodia, where the prominent anti-trafficking activist Somaly Mam was recently exposed as a fantasist and fraud.

In Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Mai alone, a number of groups solicit donations to help in their work with women deemed at risk. Concerned individuals can stay in a guesthouse staffed by such women – a “social business,” though it has been erroneously reported by at least one journalist as a non-profit – or volunteer at a shelter for US$170 a week. They can also take part in a “trek for social change” or a “human trafficking photography course,” which costs US$5,421 per couple.

One of these organizations ignored repeated requests for information on its non-profit status, and another told Asia Sentinel that it was in the process of renewing it. The American founder of the guesthouse - a friend of the now-discredited Somaly Mam, a Cambodian sex trafficking activist who has been called a fraud – told one apparently unquestioning reporter that she had “spent a lot of time in the brothels in Chiang Mai” before launching her organization Daughters Rising, but refused to elaborate when asked by Asia Sentinel. Alexa Pham, who was recently voted joint winner of Marie Claire’s “changing the world’ contest by the magazine’s readers, refused a request for an interview, citing the “current political situation” in Thailand.

“There are some groups up there [in northern Thailand] who are using trafficking and people at risk as ways to raise money when in fact they are doing other things,”Feingold said, declining to say which groups. “Some are anti-prostitution, some do believe that they are doing good for hill tribe people.”

For example, he said, some claim to provide education for children who have been rescued, when in fact their families send them to the schools because they are desperate for them to receive an education. Unfortunately, he added, it’s easier for these groups to raise money by pretending they are saving women from sex trafficking than it is to raise money for schools and textbooks.

At the Empower Foundation, the claims of these groups are greeted with derision. “They are not anti-trafficking, they are anti-prostitution,” says Liz Hilton, an Australian nurse who has worked for the foundation for 22 years. Referring to another trendy local issue, she sums up their attitude as: “We love elephants, we don’t like sex workers.”

Most sensible estimates put the number of prostitutes in Thailand at between 150,000 and 200,000. Many hail from the poorer, rural northeast, from the hill tribes of the north, or from neighboring Burma, and sex work offers an opportunity to earn the kind of wages that would be unthinkable at home. In the current popular discourse on trafficking, “undereducated, poor and rural means stupid and naive,” says Hilton. Instead, she says, sex workers are mostly astute businesswomen who deserve respect.

“There were trafficked women locked in cells, but by 1997-98 it was basically all over,” she adds, pointing to changes in the Thai sex industry as many brothels were replaced by bars where freelance prostitutes could meet clients.

Anti-trafficking groups sometimes help police conduct raids on bars in Chiang Mai, leading to “serious human rights abuses,” Hilton said. The women are detained and cut off from their families, not allowed to use their mobile phones, and those from Burma are then deported. Sometimes police detain them as “witnesses,” meaning they are entitled to Bt200 a day for food and lodgings – but this is taken from them by corrupt officers. “When we talk to the migrant sex workers, they say they are used to it now.”

As for the anti-trafficking activists who flock to northern Thailand, “I don’t like to think that people are self-serving,” Hilton said.” Some are, of course, and some people don’t know how to respect these women and see these women’s strength and courage.”

She adds: “We’ve spent 20 years saying sex work doesn’t cause Aids. Now we have to spend another 20 years saying sex work isn’t about trafficking.”