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Volunteer citizens on the lookout to prevent child trafficking in Thailand

By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela / Pattaya (Thailand) / In Pattaya, a Thai resort city notorious for sex tourism, moto-taxi drivers and hotel employees have turned into “citizen-vigilantes” to fight against child trafficking, a problem that continues to plague the country despite some progress in recent years.

After dusk, the seafront in Pattaya – located around 150 kilometers (93 miles) southeast of Bangkok – gets filled with a buzzing crowd in which families are almost indistinguishable from potential sex workers, while neon signs flash on clubs that double up as brothels in small alleyways.

Minor victims of abuse or trafficking can be often seen begging or soliciting on the streets, but go unnoticed by many of the visitors.

However, they generally don’t escape the eyes of the volunteers trained by social worker and activist Supagon Noja.

In February, a moto-taxi driver witnessed how a 13-year old boy was being abused in a hotel by foreign pedophiles, who paid a network of traffickers around 1,000 baht ($32) for each sexual encounter.

The boy, who hailed from another province and received half of the money earned, was rescued and now stays at the Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Abuse Center, headed by Supagon for the past 11 years.

Currently, the activist is investigating the case of a 12-year-old who is possibly being forced to beg by a relative in an apparent case of child trafficking.

“In the case of child beggars, one has to ascertain if anyone controls the place where they beg, if they are taken around by someone and if the person shares the money with the children or not,” Supagon told EFE at his center.

“In the case of prostitution, one has to discover the person who recruits the children and determine whether there’s someone who sends children to clients to be raped,” added the social worker, who has been active for more than three decades.

Supagon admits that he has seen a decline in child trafficking, but adds that cases of child abuse within the family have increased.

The center also continues to host victims of trafficking from Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.

In August, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in a report that Thailand was a major place of origin, transit and destination for children trafficked for sexual motives by regional trafficking networks.

“Data from the Thai Office of the Attorney General indicate that of the 1,248 detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation during the 2014-2017 period, almost 70 percent were underage girls,” said the report, titled “Regional Organized Crime in Southeast Asia.”

The UN agency also highlighted that nearly half of the victims of human trafficking in Thailand are local citizens who are taken from one place to another or sent abroad.

The report said Thailand had made progress in the fight against human trafficking in the fishing sector by strengthening checks on fishing boats, increasing arrests of traffickers and strictly implementing anti-trafficking law.

However, some critics say this has diverted attention from other sectors, such as agriculture, construction and persistent child trafficking.

Despite a number of agencies, institutions and NGOs working to prevent child trafficking, Thailand lacks official figures or reliable estimates about the crime.

Lucy McCray, an activist who works at the non-profit “The Northern Freedom Story” in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, told EFE that poor, stateless or ethnic minority children face a bigger risk of being trafficked.

More and more children are also facing trafficking for the production of sexual content on the internet.

“We have seen a huge increase in the role of the internet and social media. Students are being solicited online for sexual photos and videos,” McCray said in an email.

The number of children begging or selling flowers – common examples of child trafficking – has gone down in recent years, but some cases still evoke suspicion.

Wan, an eight-year-old, was begging for money under a busy station of the elevated train – meters away from a police post – and told EFE that she was living with a “relative.”

Dressed in a pink dress, she soon stood up and went to a corner where she briefly talked with a woman and another girl before disappearing into the crowd, still clutching the vase that functions as her begging bowl. (October 4, 2019, EFE/Practica Español)

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