Former cop releases Thai sex trafficking report

An estimated 60,000 young people aged between 12 and 20 are part of the illegal sex trade.

A former New Zealand police officer and Massey University master’s graduate has recommended to Thailand’s national police organisation that they introduce community policing to fight against illegal sex trafficking.

Francis Maiava undertook the research during a three-year stint in Bangkok. He says the scale of the problem, including the bribery of police and immigration officers to overlook such offences, is overwhelming.

The study broaches the murky territory where police officers mandated to combat illegal sex trafficking are often part of the corrupt system that enables traffickers in Thailand – known as the hub of the sex trade internationally. His research revealed numerous accounts of police and immigration officers being bribed by traffickers at border entry points to ignore their activities.

His study also explores the diverse nature of human trafficking at the Thai-Burmese border. It examines various international, national and regional anti-trafficking laws and proposes innovative approaches – such as community policing – as a key tool to combat human trafficking.

Mr Maiava, who focussed mainly on the plight of Burmese women, was awarded the Strategic Advisory Board Prize for Top Student in the Master of International Security programme at a conference hosted by Massey’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies at its Auckland campus.

Rugby academy for slum kids leads to human trafficking research

His research – which he has presented to two high-ranking Thai police superintendents – was driven by an awareness of the potential for community policing and the hope it could make a difference to the safety of migrant communities in Thailand. He was living with his family in Bangkok, where his wife was working for the New Zealand government when he decided to research the topic.

Mr Maiava encountered frontline victims of the sex trade after befriending two Bangkok-based New Zealand-born Samoans who run a rugby academy for children in Bangkok’s slums. He volunteered at the academy, called Nak Suu Rugby Academy, to help the children of migrant workers from Burma whose parents worked all day, leaving them at home unsupervised and with nothing to do.

The academy, which translates as ‘Noble Warrior’, also offers English tutoring reading and writing to help build self-esteem among children. Mr Maiava discovered that many of the children’s mothers and older sisters were working in the sex trade, and were victims of sex traffickers operating in the slums, prompting his concern and interest in researching policing measures to improve their safety.

He says the migratory journey of people from the Greater Mekong Sub-region – including from Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – in search of better opportunities in a foreign land, is fraught with dangers, which in turn, increases their vulnerability to human trafficking.

An added complexity is that victims do not always see themselves as such because they are prepared to take huge risks in being exploited so they can send money to their families back home, he says. They risk being jailed without legal representation, assault and contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.

False promises lure vulnerable migrants to Thailand

A website dedicated to fighting human trafficking states that many of Thailand’s estimated 425,500 trafficking victims are forced into labour in the fishing, construction and garment industries, while an estimated 60,000 young people aged between 12 and 20 are part of the illegal sex trade.

“Burmese women and girls are unwittingly lured by traffickers into false promises of better jobs, lifestyle and education only to be exploited in Thailand by having their travel documents confiscated and forced to work in slavery-like conditions, under debt bondage, in karaoke bars, brothels, massage parlours and restaurants,” Mr Maiava says in his report.

They become dependent on their traffickers due to the language barrier in Thailand, he says. “As a result, they are susceptible to forced prostitution and subjected to the control of pimps, brothel owners and criminal networks aided by corrupt state officials.”

Mr Maiava, a building compliance investigator for Auckland Council and previously a community constable then a detective constable in Palmerston North for a total of eight years, says recruiting Burmese men and women into Thai community policing units would help break down language barriers.

It would also help dispel entrenched mistrust, fear of authority and stigma experienced by victims of sex trafficking, which deters them from seeking help through the police and justice systems.

Community policing has proven successful in places like Singapore and the Philippines where sex trafficking is also a problem, he says. The advantage of community policing is its focus on improving the quality of life by working in partnership with communities to find practical, sustainable solutions to crime and social ills. But its success depends on a major culture shift within a policing organisation, he adds.

“Theoretically, Thailand’s anti-trafficking legislation advocates prevention as a core element of the criminal justice system’s response to curbing trafficking,” he says in his report. But in reality, he says the legislation is “mere rhetoric”.

Human trafficking is a multi-dimensional problem, and embraces human rights, migration, globalisation, inequality, poverty, crime and corruption, Mr Maiava says.

Mr Maiava is one of over 100 graduates of the Masters of International Security programme at Massey since the degree was available in 2012. His research was supervised by Dr Nick Gilmour, a New Zealand Police teaching fellow at the centre.

Report released by Massey University