Sex trafficking of women and children in Thailand

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Trafficking in persons, as defined by the UN, is the "recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of deception, of the abuse of power or of position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation." Thailand is a source, destination, and transit country for sex trafficking of women and children.[1] With the publication of its 2014 Trafficking in Persons [TIP] Report, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to "Tier 3", the lowest level possible, for its failure to show improvements in eliminating human trafficking. This places Thailand in the company of 22 other recalcitrant nations, including North Korea, Syria, and the Central African Republic.[2]

Patterns of exploitation[edit]

With regard to sex trafficking of Thai citizens, there are two general patterns that exist in Thailand. The older pattern is one where a woman or child is recruited from a village to a larger town, where she is forced into the sex industry. Sometimes, she may be transported to a foreign country.[3] A more recent pattern is one in which a person is transported from a village directly to a foreign country.[3] The Foundation for Women found that the women in the one-step direct recruitment pattern are more likely to be exposed to harsher forms of sexual exploitation.[3] Once the women and girls are transported to the destination country, they are forced into prostitution, sometimes serving locals and sometimes sex tourists, depending on the location.

In Thailand, local women and children are trafficked into other countries, especially wealthier Asian countries.[4] It is estimated that 100,000 to 200,000 Thai females, including girls and women, work in a variety of overseas venues where sex is sold. The number of trafficked Thai females in Japan alone is between 50,000 and 70,000.[5] Most of these females are between the ages of 12 and 16 and are sent to brothels in the destination country.[6]

Trafficking in Thailand is not limited to Thai citizens; many women and children from other countries are trafficked into Thailand to work in the Thai sex industry. In recent years there have been numerous cases of Burmese, Cambodian, and Lao women and children trafficked into Thai brothels in northern provinces such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai; central and eastern provinces such as Trat, Samut Prakan, Samut Sakhon, Chonburi, and Chumphon; and, Songkhla, Narathiwat, and Pattani near the southern Malaysian border. More than 80,000 women and children have been sold into the Thai sex industry since 1990.[6] The majority of sex workers in Thailand are foreigners and more than 60% of females entering the country to work in the sex industry are under the age of 18.[6] There are 75,000 prostituted children in Thailand. This includes both children trafficked into Thailand and local children.[6]


Before the 1970s, commercialized sex in Thailand was a small industry. It was in the 1970s that the sex industry began to flourish in Thailand. The flood of US GIs into Thailand during the Vietnam War was the single largest contributing factor to the sharp rise of the Thai sex industry.[citation needed]

It is estimated that during the 1990s the number of children and women engaged in the sex industry was no fewer than 400,000.[3]

Suspected causes[edit]

Academics and experts alike are unable to agree on one specific cause for people entering the sex industry through trafficking. These multiple causes can be categorized as economic, familial responsibilities, and religious beliefs. Many suspect that women and children sell sex because they have been coerced, abandoned, kidnapped, or sold into virtual slavery to pay off parental debts.[4]

Economic causes[edit]

The economy of Thailand is considered one of the driving forces of trafficking because many families are poor farmers, such as those in the north. Lisa Rende Taylor, an anthropologist who has conducted studies on sex trafficking in Thailand, found that commercial sex work is a lucrative industry based on the economic inequality and disparities between Thailand's rural areas and Bangkok, and between Thailand and wealthier Asian nations.[4]

Children often try a variety of other jobs such as scavenging, working in sweatshops, or begging.[7] These jobs, however, do not pay well enough to convince children to not go into the better paying jobs in the sex industry. Prostitution may represent a way for a girl to earn enough money to maintain and enhance her family's property and status in her home village.[4][5]

Economic strife does not only influence women and children native to Thailand, but to those who are trafficked into Thailand itself. Victims of trafficking that come from other nations are "easily deceived or lured because they face poverty, unemployment, broken families, and unstable governments" in their countries of origin.[6]

Familial responsibility[edit]

Other experts believe that poverty and lack of education are not the main causes behind the trafficking of Thai children and women, as is often assumed. Rende Taylor's research demonstrated how, among Thais, girls from both poor and better off families may become trafficked. In addition, education actually increased the risk of a rural girl being trafficked, due to the expectations and opportunity costs of that education. That is, girls who are allowed to study through 9th or even 12th grade, as compared with sisters who may not have been able to study as long, may have great expectations for their earning potential, likely in a larger town or city. These girls are especially at risk of being recruited and forced into sex trafficking, since, once in the city, they may not be able to get the job they envisioned, yet will be reluctant to return home penniless. Many girls and young women may also feel an obligation to their family to repay for past sacrifices, with money being used as a way to improve the family's well-being and status.[4]

Rende Taylor also found that when there is more than one daughter within the family, it is usually the middle or youngest child that ends up the sex industry, not the eldest, as is often assumed. The eldest daughter within a Thai family usually stays at home to assist her parents in maintaining the house, farm, and younger siblings. It is the middle-born daughters who are expected to financially assist the family. Youngest daughters usually receive more schooling than their elder sisters due to the earnings of older siblings; however, this may be a risk factor for youngest daughters getting recruited and/or forced into the sex industry as well.[4][5]

Religious beliefs[edit]

More than 90% of Thailand's population is Buddhist.[8] Buddhist beliefs, especially in northern Thailand, contribute to community acceptance of prostitution and sex trafficking. Thai Buddhists hold that "each person’s soul inhabits many physical bodies over time, with the quality of each life influenced by the soul's store of merit".[5] Merit can be earned by providing aid to one's parents, which can be through earnings from sex work, despite the nature of the work itself.[5] The merit gained would, in essence, bless the girls and young women in their next life, negating the effects of having been a sex worker. Nearly US$300 million is transferred yearly by trafficked women engaged in prostitution back to their families in Thailand.[citation needed]

Sex industry in Thailand[edit]

In Thailand, close to 40,000 children under the age of 16 are believed to be in the sex trade, working in clubs, bars, and brothels.[6] A survey in 1998 showed that 54.01% of these workers were in the north, 28.9% in the northeast, and 9.67% in the central region.[6] Prostitution of trafficked and native peoples is a very lucrative business. "Between 1993 and 1995 it is estimated that prostitution produced an annual income between 22.5 and 27 billion dollars alone."[6]

Methods used by traffickers[edit]

Common methods of trafficking include, but are not limited to, physical force, coercion such as debt relief for family, job, marriage, threats, and passport theft. Girls can also be kidnapped or lured into the industry by promises of high paying work as dancers, waitresses, domestic servants, or sale representatives.[6]

Recruitment is another method commonly used by traffickers. Girls are recruited at a young age into the sex industry, often by former prostitutes who are agents of a brothel or "massage parlor".[6] These agents have a specific agenda. They scout poor villages and when a potential candidate is found, the agent offers a down payment for the girl to her parents.[6] The agent returns when the girl is 12 to make the final payment and to pick up the "goods".[6]

Appeal of young women and children[edit]

One reason that young women and girls may be increasingly recruited into prostitution is the demand of the clientele of the sex industry. Advertised promises of youth, virginity, and innocence have led to increased demands for children in the global sex trade.[7] Research has found that the characteristics that men find attractive in Thai women are "simplicity, loyalty, affection, and innocence."[7]

There are two types of men who use trafficked children. The first type is preferential abusers who actively seek out sex with children of a particular age.[7] The second type is situational abusers who might have sex with children if an offer is made. Their sexual preference is not necessarily for children. These men are commonly sex tourists, or those who travel to other countries specifically looking for sex.

The increasing number of people with AIDS is another reason for the increasing recruitment of young girls. The sex industry uses AIDS as an excuse "under the false pretense that younger girls will not be infected with the disease".[6]

Risks for sex workers[edit]

HIV/AIDS, STDs, and pregnancy are major risks for females involved in the sex industry. Most women are likely to be under control of their owners after being trafficked into a new country. Due to this, they are not in the position to negotiate with customers to protect themselves from disease or pregnancy.[3]

In the 1990s, Thai sex workers believed that they would get pregnant or be infected with a disease only if it was their fate. Due to this belief, many women never used contraceptives or received medical checkups and thus were at a higher risk of contracting a disease or getting pregnant.[5]

Protection and prevention[edit]


Several laws were enacted in the 1990s to help prevent sex trafficking and to protect those who are trafficked.

In 1992, Thailand initiated a program to work with families and society to alter positive attitudes toward child prostitution.[9] Legal measures were also implemented to suppress sexual trafficking.[9]

In 1996, Thailand introduced a new law on the suppression and prevention of prostitution. Prostitution by adult women is considered an offence that "upsets public morality" in Thailand.[3] Women are fined, and minors are forcibly rehabilitated.[3] If parents were directly involved in the selling of their children to sex traffickers, they are severely punished as well.[3]

In 1997, Thailand enacted a new anti-trafficking law.[3] This law included women, girls, and boys of all nationalities trafficked into Thailand.[3]

In 2008, Thailand enacted a newer, comprehensive anti-trafficking law, the Anti-Trafficking in Person Act BE 2551, with a definition of "human trafficking" in line with the international definition contained in the Palermo Protocol of the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime. Thus, this law criminalizes both sex and labour trafficking, of men, women, and children of any nationality.

With regard to policy, Thailand initiated a memorandum of Understanding for the Treatment of Trafficking of Women and Children in 1999.[3] It is a guideline for responsible governmental agencies to take legal action against traffickers and "provide social assistance to trafficking women and children of Thai and other nationalities".[3]

Thailand is also implementing its second national plan to suppress and prevent trafficking of women and children.[3] "National plans of action" are written by a national committee, which is composed of representatives from both governmental and non-governmental organisations.[3]

In addition, Thailand has a number of bilateral memoranda of understanding (MOUs) for anti-trafficking cooperation with the governments of Cambodia (2003), Lao PDR (2005), and Myanmar (2009).[10] The Thai-Lao and Thai-Myanmar MOUs are executed through action plans as well as case management meetings to handle cross-border issues.

International involvement[edit]

The Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons, part of the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, includes a universal definition of human trafficking and requires state parties to provide, if appropriate and possible in accordance with their international laws, assistance to trafficked persons and establish mechanisms for cooperation.[3] As of December 2014 it had been ratified by 166 countries including Thailand.[11]

Thailand ratified the Palermo Protocol on 17 October 2013. It is a member of the COMMIT Process (Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Human Trafficking), a six-country anti-trafficking framework for cooperation between the Mekong governments of Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The COMMIT Process is underpinned by a MOU, which is effected by sub-regional action plans and national annual workplans. Thus, Thailand is obligated to combat human trafficking, including sex trafficking, with substantial international support.


  1. ^ "2014 Trafficking in Persons Report". Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. US Department of State. Retrieved 2015-01-11. 
  2. ^ Brown, Sophie (2014-06-21). "Tackling Thailand's human trafficking problem". CNN International. Retrieved 2015-01-11. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Thailand: Trafficking in Women and Children." Women's International Network News 29.4 (2003): 53-54. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 Sep 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Taylor, Lisa Rende (Jun 2005). "Dangerous Trade‐offs: The Behavioral Ecology of Child Labor and Prostitution in Rural Northern Thailand". Current Anthropology. 46 (3): 411–431. JSTOR 10.1086/430079. doi:10.1086/430079. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Bower, Bruce. "Childhood's End." Science News 168.13 (2005): 200-201. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 Sep 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Hughes, Donna M., Laura J. Sporcic, Nadine Z. Mendelsohn, and Vanessa Chirgwin. "Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation: Thailand." Thailand - Facts on Trafficking and Prostitution. Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Web. 12 Oct 2010.
  7. ^ a b c d Montgomery, Heather. "Buying Innocence: Child-Sex Tourists in Thailand." Third World Quarterly 29.5 (2008): 903-917. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 Sep 2010.
  8. ^ "People and Society; Religion". The World Factbook; East & SE Asia; Thailand. US Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 2015-01-11. 
  9. ^ a b “Fighting Aids by Empowering Women and Girls.” Foreign Affairs 82.3 (2003): 12. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 Sep 2010.
  10. ^ "National Laws and Agreements: Thailand". UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. United Nations. Retrieved 2015-01-11. 
  11. ^ "Status as at : 11-01-2015 05:03:25 EDT". UN Treaty Collection. United Nations. Retrieved 2015-01-11. 

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