Fighting the good fight: Combatting human slavery in Thailand

For the past few years, the issue of human trafficking in Thailand has continued to be front page news. But instead of focusing on the many successes of the counter trafficking response, these articles have tended to highlight more of the inadequacies of the on-going efforts. As one of the first countries to bring the issue of human trafficking to the world stage in the early 1990s, this has been a terrible embarrassment among those who feel that Thailand’s past achievements have been forgotten in recent times. One thing is clear. There are many very committed individuals and organizations doing anti-slavery work throughout Thailand.

Their efforts include general awareness, legal and policy reform, and victim support and prevention. These people deeply care about the topic and desperately want to do whatever they can to help solve it. This year’s upgrade of Thailand from Tier III (does not meet minimum standards) on the US Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) to Tier II Watch list (making significant efforts to meet those standards) holds out the prospect of Thailand improving to Tier II. Let us seize the day.

Of crucial import is the fight against child sex tourism, i.e., the act of traveling to another country to engage in illegal sexual conduct with children. This problem is increasing because of the low cost of international travel and the exchange of information by sexual predators regarding the location of child victims overseas via the ‘Dark Net’ part of the internet. Children from poor and developing countries are specifically targeted by sexual predators. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) estimates that over one million children are exploited each year globally in the illegal commercial sex trade. These acts are doubly illegal in the case of, for example, American citizens, who engage in sexual contact with a minor overseas. As well as being subject to local laws, they are subject to prosecution under numerous U.S. laws, which were strengthened in 2003 by the passing of the federal PROTECT Act, which fortified the means to prosecute and imprison criminals and removed the statute of limitations on child abuse. Then, in 2008 the FBI launched its Child Sex Tourism Initiative to investigate and prosecute these crimes and to support child victims with services. This uniquely innovative initiative now works along with foreign law enforcement and non-governmental organizations in countries like Thailand.

Until recently, Thailand faced a specific problem with combatting child sexual slavery – the fact that prosecuting offenders required a victim to testify. In the case where a victim could not be identified or was unwilling to testify, charges were simply dropped or never filed. However, in late 2015 Thailand passed a law against the possession of child pornography, allowing digital evidence in the possession of sexual predators to speak for the victims. This anti-pornography law also benefits the newly established Thailand Internet Crimes against Children Task Force (TICAC), run by Royal Thai Police Col. Thakoon Nimsomboonet and set up with support from the FBI and HSI, and designed to share intelligence. TICAC is able to leverage the legislation to develop better law enforcement in order to track down those who produce child pornography and who are involved in domestic and international sex trafficking.

To maintain the on-going trend in favour of taking a stand against sexual slavery, it is necessary to take a critical look at what is already in place and see if there are improvements that can be made to turn the tide. This would help to facilitate a process that would allow on-going initiatives to be better understood, allowing these initiatives reach their full potential. For example, within Thailand there is a great deal of diverse data available related to human slavery. It can be found within the legal community, among the NGOs, and from the victims themselves.  Despite the availability of this information, data collection, analysis, and dissemination across the country continues to be limited. There are four basic challenges related to effective use of this information. First, there appears to be no standardized data collection format. While raw data is available, it is collected and stored in many different formats. Second, even if there is data, there is no centralized data repository to analyse and disseminate it. Third, many organizations are resistant to sharing their data out of fear it would give others a funding advantage. Finally, many groups do not know the value of applying good data to their work. This is clearly a missed opportunity.

In addition, it appears that many anti-human trafficking efforts are being done in isolation.  Instead of working in collaboration, organizations tend to walk their own paths. Beyond the larger cities, such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Pattaya, which often have coalitions, there is little evidence of collaboration among existing groups. The main reasons for this lack of cooperation often include fear that collaboration would help other organizations to get a funding advantage, interagency differences in perspectives and approaches, or a lack of understanding of the importance of collaboration.

To address these issues, the counter-trafficking community needs to spend more time understanding, analysing, contemplating and visualizing a way forward. To bring about changes, there are three priorities that should be considered: 1) Information, which includes improving data collection and analysis; 2) People, which includes better support for the people who do the work; and 3) Services, which includes combining efforts through better collaboration among the responders.

The first priority – information – must be to expand and improve the overall collection, analysis, dissemination, and use of human slavery data across Thailand. For this to happen, an agreed-upon plan is needed for how to consolidate and operationalize this process. This vision might include gathering standardized information related to the victims, indicators of vulnerability, the criminal behaviour involved, and the legal response. Other data sources might include inventories of who is doing what and where, and checklists related to legislation, operational responses, and outstanding needs or gaps. This data would help the counter-trafficking community to understand what they need to know about the problem and how to effectively address it. The data would also assist responders in tracking the impact of their work over time and in updating and improving the training, awareness raising, and ongoing capacity building efforts. Time and time again, we have seen that it is a major mistake to try to solve a social problem without having appropriate data. Without it, planning and responding is conducted in the dark.

A data-driven approach underlines the 2016 TIP report for Thailand to “increase efforts to identify victims among vulnerable populations, including migrants, stateless persons, children, and refugees.” To bring about this change, the research community should consider developing a standardized data collection format and platform for multiple data sets. There are a range of examples of these kinds of tools that can be found within the public health and education sectors. This would avoid reinventing the wheel. As part of this process, more innovative techniques to collect, consolidate and analyse data need to be tested and refined. This might include online data entry formats or Smartphone-based questionnaires. There also needs to be an agreed upon and independent repository for the data. This might include one or more neutral organizations, for example a re-vamped institute-level National Human Rights Commission, that are willing to take the data, analyse it and freely share the results with the overall community. The importance of having good data to work from cannot be emphasized enough. It offers the foundation for knowing what “is” and what needs to be done.

The second priority – people – is also very important.  People are the most important asset available in our fight against human slavery. To bring about a significant change, Thailand needs to invest more in the people who do the work.  Every day, these workers put their heart and soul into their efforts only to face a lack of appreciation or a seemingly endless list of unrelenting tasks. Others spend countless hours trying to raise money to keep their organizations alive. As a result, the stress levels among counter-trafficking responders is extremely high. Some of this can be resolved through better staffing and funding, as is the case with the Royal Thai Police, according to the international NGO, A21.

While there are certainly rewards associated with helping others heal following an unspeakable trauma, this work can also have a negative impact on frontline workers. Many people entering this field do so because they have a strong desire to help those in need. Likewise, they know that there will be times they will have to commit to long hours, work on difficult cases, and address complicated social issues. But if these cases build up and the workload remains excessive, it is not uncommon for people to personally burn out. As a community, we need to recognize these signs to ensure that those called to do this work are able to remain healthy.

Likewise, it is important that responders are adequately compensated for their work. Programs that achieve the best results include human resource schemes that offer ongoing career development, performance awards, and professional development opportunities. The more encouragement workers receive, the better chance they will thrive in their jobs.

Thailand might also consider expanding beyond the NGO and government responders to include more faith-based, school and general public participants. Many people want to help, but they do not know what to do. For these people to truly make a difference, a modern day abolitionist movement that is proactive and unified is needed. This would require that many more people are informed and recruited to be part of the solution. Investing in these communities would help to bring about this outcome. If ten million people did ten million small compassionate acts, such as phoning in tips to a hotline, this would have a major impact. This approach has worked before and can work again.

The last category – services – focuses on the organizations that are doing the counter-trafficking work. This includes NGO, government, and law enforcement efforts being implemented across the country. The emphasis of this component should be on establishing expanded and sustained collaboration among potential partners and effective linkages between services and programs.

As noted earlier, many anti-human trafficking efforts are being conducted in isolation. Instead of working in collaboration, organizations tend to do their own activities independently. This is a missed opportunity and is highlighted by the 2016 TIP Report for Thailand, in which it is recommended that they “prosecute and convict traffickers through proactive law enforcement and systematic cooperation with civil society.” While many counter-trafficking groups get together on a regular basis to share ideas and to do joint activities, there are also many examples where collaboration is lacking, cooperation among groups doing similar activities is absent, and competition prevents them from fully coming together. In our day-to-day interactions, we have all seen how collaboration can be paralyzed or hindered by simple misunderstandings, polarized political views, and/or a lack of faith in the process. In the absence of collaboration, people often waste time obsessing over their differences and their perceived failures, instead of working on the problem at hand. This wasted energy takes away from their mandate to help and support those they serve. This situation is not unique to the human trafficking sector; it can be found in many other development settings as well.

Collaboration is not something that just happens by bringing people together.  True collaboration is built upon a foundation of trust and a united sense of purpose. If one can develop feelings of accomplishment within a collaborative process, joint ownership of a problem often follows. With this ownership, organizations tend to take care of the process and remain committed to it.  But for this to happen, early and substantial involvement that is positive, supportive, and encourages innovation makes all the difference. The collaborative process needs to take place at all levels: between governments, NGOs and the private sector, to develop a comprehensive, sustained response that caters to the needs of the entire sector.

Imagine how much more could be accomplished with a unified approach. Imagine how effective the counter trafficking response could be as a force of one, a force of solidarity. The counter trafficking community should emphasize what is most important – “we, the combined community, helping those in need.” For this to happen, everyone must find a way to work closer together. If collaboration is done correctly, 1 plus 1 equals 11, not 2. There is a synergetic effect that adds great value to the overall response. The key is strategic collaboration, not tokenistic collaboration.  True collaboration will allow the counter trafficking community to reduce redundancies and improve the efficiency of the work.

One of the best ways to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of a human trafficking effort and, at the same time instil a sense of collaboration, is to link the efforts of different organizations together into a collective program. For example, to get the most out of a protection response, a program that addresses the needs of a person from the point at which he/she leaves the exploitation to the time when he/she is settled in a stable living situation is essential. One effective approach is to set up a program that links NGO activities together to address the needs of a trafficked person. For example, one NGO can offer a shelter to help the victim receive healthcare, counselling, food, shelter, and an opportunity to decompress. A good example of this is the Haven Children's Home in Pattaya, which is funded by the international NGO A21 and where thirty children are being cared for at any one time.

Once this process is completed, another NGO can offer support to travel with the victim to their home or community. This can help the person transition back into a normal life situation. Another NGO could then provide regular follow-up care to identify the trafficked person’s sustained needs. This can help to offer an ongoing support system to the person. Yet another NGO can then provide job training and job placement. Through this united approach, the victim can be given an opportunity to address the vulnerabilities that resulted in his/her trafficking outcome. If these services are not connected, many victims might miss these steps and then be vulnerable to being re-trafficked. This seamless transition between services significantly helps reduce this outcome.

The same situation should be considered for organizations that offer a legal response (prosecution).  Instead of working independently, if a consortium of organizations can be brought together under a single umbrella, the outcome will be more impactful. For example, the following skill sets could be brought together when doing prosecution cases: proactive investigation, legal training, legal follow-up, victim protection, and legal reform. Many trafficking cases fall apart because the law enforcement action, the raid and rescue, is not tied to a longer term prosecution strategy or the victim protection needs are not planned in advance of the intervention.

One attempt to establish such an approach already mentioned above is the TICAC initiative. Utilising a U.S. model, the task force combats sexual exploitation facilitated via the internet through sharing intelligence. For instance, Thai law enforcement officials just started working directly with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the U.S. to share real-time information about victims and criminals. Once victims are detected, the next step is providing them with assistance, standard practice for the FBI since 2001, but not yet in Thailand. Victim assistance is not just the morally correct course of action: it provides information that helps law enforcement more effectively investigate criminals. That then increases the chances that abusers will be imprisoned and will no longer pose a threat to society.

One Thai initiative along these lines is the recently opened Royal Thai Government’s Child Advocacy Centre in Chiang Mai, the first of its type in Southeast Asia. Adapted from U.S. models, the centre provides shelter and resources for victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse. The setting has also been designed to allow specially trained experts to interview the children in a friendly, low stress environment. According to the Director, the centre aims to offer “one-stop care” for victims. “Many of the children here come from poor families,” she said. “They do not have access to counselors or lawyers. We are here to make sure they get all that, along with after-school programs and basics such as food. We look after them.” This approach to ending the cycle of exploitation is absolutely necessary to prevent abused victims themselves becoming abusers because of being conditioned by the abuse they have suffered and it is already being expanded. With FBI and Homeland Security Investigations (HIS - an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security) training and support, the Royal Thai Police are in the process of establishing a victim assistance program along the lines of the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance, in which trained police specialists work in the best interests of child victims.

The concept of victim assistance is now taking off in Thailand. In April, Thai police generals were among over 100 members of law enforcement and of NGOs to receive expert training from the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance at a three-day Victim Support Services Conference. The Royal Thai Government had earlier requested the FBI’s guidance and support in establishing a victim assistance program for the Royal Thai police. As one general who participated in the training programme, Major Gen. Monthon Ngernwattanam, noted, “The idea of victim assistance is new to the Royal Thai Police, but it’s very helpful. This program will show the international community that we can try our best to fight against human trafficking.” The aim is to allocate victim specialists to every major police force in the country, providing a victim-oriented approach to investigations. The FBI has found that this approach improved the quality of prosecution and better helped the victims become involved in seeing justice done, as witnesses and as recovering human beings. The next step is further FBI co-training of Royal Thai police victim-witness coordinators.

As can be seen, effective collaboration can bring about better linkages between organizations. The importance of linking activities cannot be emphasized enough. Collaboration also allows the entire community to share best practices and lessons with each other. This helps to avoid everyone “reinventing the wheel.” Finally, good collaboration allows the counter-trafficking community to achieve a foundation of support that helps us all to feel we are not alone in the fight.

The human trafficking issue is like a slowly unfolding disaster. But it is a disaster nevertheless.  All of us addressing this problem, both in Thailand and around the world, need to step up our game. Given the fact that Pattaya has more expat paedophiles than anywhere in the world, both abusing children and producing pornography, we need to solve many of the long-standing systemic challenges that Thailand faces by drawing up a comprehensive national strategy for child exploitation prevention and interdiction, as in the US. We need to have more of a sense of urgency and to build on the initiatives like the US assistance via the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance, Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department. As we develop best practices in Thailand, we then need to propagate this approach throughout Southeast Asia. And, we need to do this now!