According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Thailand is a “top destination for victims of human trafficking.” The majority of Thailand’s trafficking victims are voluntary economic migrants from countries like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and China. They come only for the promise of a good job.
Without documentation, knowledge of Thailand or understanding of its language, they are vulnerable to traffickers. For the same reasons, it is nearly impossible for them to escape. Many are trapped in Thailand’s bustling capital of Bangkok, famous for its rich history, stunning architecture and thriving sex tourism industry.
Operation Graceland began with a tip-off by an Uzbek woman trafficked into prostitution at Bangkok’s Grace Hotel and desperate to return home. What followed was a police raid, the holding of 19 women and an investigation of all involved. In the end, only two of the detainees admitted to being trafficked. They identified their abusive ‘manager’ amongst the group, but after receiving word that their families had been threatened, they spoke favorably of her in court. She was released.
In 2002, there were an estimated 200,000 sex workers in Bangkok and the trade has grown. It is a lucrative job: women and men from poor families earn money to support their relatives, finance future aspirations or live a life of previously unknown affluence.
Though many are forced by circumstance, involvement in the sex industry is considered voluntary. Because there are so many willing sex workers in Bangkok, it is difficult to identify victims of trafficking. Officers are being trained to recognize trafficked workers. Do they work excessive hours? Do they have documentation? Are they of age?
But even if they manage a rescue, it is difficult to convict the perpetrators. Gangs threaten those rescued and their families, warning them against speaking out. Some victims hope that, by cooperating with their captors, they will be released with a small share of their earnings, all of which typically go to their slavers. Still others are undocumented migrants, who fear legal retribution for involving themselves in any legal affair.
In any case, testifying is risky, since many prosecutors base their arguments entirely on hearsay and the victim’s statements. Slavers are often released and the case against them deemed unsubstantial.
The prevalence of trafficking in Thailand and the legal support for victims have not improved enough for international recognition. In June, the United States dropped Thailand from tier two to tier three on the 2014
Trafficking in Persons report.
But the Thai government is making headway. In 2013, the number of trafficking cases investigated was double that of 2012. Nearly 750 victims received some form of assistance from the Thai government: most were referred to one of nine shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Thousands of public officers were trained on new anti-trafficking laws; ideally, they will offer victims the legal support they need and give them hope of a life once again in freedom.