Sunday, 13 March 2011

Human traffick: a shelter for abused children

Yarzar talks to Fahan (not his real name) in a classroom
at Pak Kred Reception Home for Boys.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmeth
Poverty is relative. For families living on the bottom rung of the social ladder in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the streets and slums of Bangkok promise a lifestyle worth making a long and sometimes dangerous journey for. In the troubled border regions of Burma, meanwhile, there are people desperate enough to sell their own children into slavery. As shocking as it sounds, this is a common enough practice to generate a thriving trade in child trafficking at Thailand’s border towns.

To find out what happens to the victims of child trafficking, we went to Pak Kred Reception Home for Boys at Amphur Pakkret, about half an hour’s drive north of Bangkok. In fact it’s only north of Bangkok in the sense that Sutton is south of London – the urban sprawl thins out a bit but there’s no greenbelt or real sense of when one place ends and the other begins.

I live on the north side of Bangkok, so I flagged down a taxi and made my own way to the shelter. There, I met up with Ann and Yarzar from Peuan Peuan (‘Friends’ in Thai), part of the NGO Friends International, which gets support from UNICEF to work with migrant and trafficked children. Yarzar was a polite, young Burmese man in glasses and a Friends polo shirt. Like Nan, the street outreacher worker we met before, he used his language skills to communicate with non-Thai children and their families.

Once my colleagues Tum, Cherry and Ytske had arrived from the office with our photographer, Ann and Yarzar took us to look round the shelter. In some classrooms, older boys were doing vocational training. There was a hairdressing room with leather chairs lined up before a wall of mirrors, where the trainee barbers practiced new haircuts on each other. Next door was a pottery workshop where boys made ceramic animals and flowers from rubber moulds. I watched one boy painstakingly painting a mother hen, completely engrossed in his task and ignoring the visiting farang (foreigner).

There were also classrooms for younger boys. In one room, a group of boys played with jigsaws and dominoes, while others took part in an art class. In another room, a class was performing music with traditional Thai bamboo instruments called angklung. Each instrument produced just one note so the melody was determined by the teacher, who conducted the small orchestra. Beyond the classrooms was a kitchen and open air dining area where staff were cooking lunch. The distinctive smell of Thai green curry hung in the humid noontime air as two boys set out places on the long tables, with inverted bowls to protect the food from flies.

There were also several dormitories around a football field, where a game was in progress. I went over with Ytske to take some photos and was soon persuaded to take part. I gave my camera to one of the boys, who seemed to have a natural flair for photography, and took a few penalty shots at the goal. Another boy drew a picture of a stick man holding a camera. He pointed at the figure. “Where you from?” he asked. “The UK,” I replied to a blank look. I tried again: “England?” His face brightened. “Ah, Liverpool!” he exclaimed. “Yes, the Beatles,” I said but I was on the wrong track. “ManUtd, David Beckham!” he continued.

Boys learn hairdressing skills at the vocational training centre.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Child protection

Pak Kred is a shelter for children who need special protection. Some of the boys are victims of child trafficking or domestic violence, others are former street children or have been in trouble with the law for minor offences. At the shelter, social workers look into each child’s situation. Educational activities prepare them for work or formal school and, where possible, preparations are made to return them to their families or communities.

However, staff at the shelter are not fully equipped to deal with non-Thai children. The shelter is home to 130 boys, around 40 per cent of whom are foreign. They mainly come from the neighbouring countries of Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, either with migrant families or through child trafficking. “These shelters are meant to be temporary but some foreign children end up staying for a long time,” UNICEF child protection officer Sirirath Chunnasart explained afterwards. “If they’re from Burma, it can take years to trace their families. In the meantime they often miss out on their education because they don’t have access to classes in their own language.”

Staff from Friends International visit Pak Kred shelter three times a week to give foreign children non-formal education in their own language. The organisation also works with NGOs in neighbouring countries to try to trace their families.

Yarzar introduced us to nine-year-old Fahan (not his real name), who had been taken from the Burmese border area and brought to Bangkok with his sister Meliha by a trafficking gang. Fahan was a small boy with a dark complexion in a yellow t-shirt. He was relaxed around us and often smiled or joked with the other boys.

“I used to live with my family in Burma on the Mae-Sot border, near the Friendship Bridge,” Fahan told Tum and Cherry. “I went to school there. I was in the second grade. There was someone who brought me and my sister here from Burma. I don’t know him. We came in a big bus.

“When we got here I sold roses with my sister in places where there were lots of tourists. We sold them from 8pm until the morning. After a while we ran away from where we were working and a Burmese guy brought us here.

Fahan seemed happy at the shelter but was keen to go home. “During the day I sweep the floor, take a shower, work in the kitchen and eat meat soup,” he said. “I like learning Thai and Burmese and playing and listening to music. I would like to go back home to my family in Burma.”

Fahan helps set the tables at lunchtime.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Minority groups

Afterwards, I asked Yarzar to tell me a bit more about Fahan’s situation. “He is from one of the Muslim minority groups in Burma, which face discrimination because of their ethnicity and religion,” he said. “Fahan’s family is very poor. They have four children and live in Myawaddy village on the Moi river, where the father drives a boat.”

The Moi river marks the border between Burma and Thailand. Myawaddy is on the Burmese side opposite Mae-Sot, a Thai border town that has become synonymous with drug smuggling, sex workers and child trafficking. “A broker went to the family and offered them 3,000 baht [£600] for two of their children,” Yarzar continued. That’s a lot of money in Burma. Brokers will promise to look after the children and pay the parents every month, but after a few months they usually stop paying.”

Fahan and Meliha were treated harshly by the trafficker. “He brought them to Bangkok where they lived with him in a room above a shop. They slept during the day and he forced them to sell flowers on the street at night. If they disobeyed him, he would beat them. They earned around 1,000 baht a night but the broker would only give them 10 baht each for a snack.”

Yarzar met Fahan at the shelter after he escaped from the trafficker, but it took a while to win his trust. “Fahan didn’t trust anyone at first because of his experiences. He was very quiet and afraid of everything. I had to play with him and build a relationship step-by-step. But he’s happy now and makes friends with everyone. He’s just like a normal kid now.”

Meliha is now back with her parents in Myawaddy and Fahan will be joining them soon. “We were lucky to be able to trace the family,” Yarzar said. “The Burmese government does not provide social services and we have to rely on local NGOs. Even then, their activities are restricted. It’s much easier to trace the Cambodian children.”

Given everything he’s been through, Fahan did seem like a remarkably normal child and I was struck yet again by children’s resilience and their ability to recover from deeply traumatic experiences. Relatively speaking, Fahan is one of the lucky ones. Across Thailand, there are thousands of children like him working for traffickers. They beg or sell flowers on the streets, they live and work in rubber plantations or sweatshop factories producing goods for Western consumers, or they work on boats in the fishing industry. Some of them spend their whole childhood in virtual slavery and never see the inside of a classroom.

“A few years ago the police raided a big factory in Samut Sakorn where trafficked children were living and working,” Yarzar commented. “The owner was sent to prison. But it still goes on and they don’t always get caught.

Yarzar walks with Fahan back to his dormitory block.
“I would like to go back home to my family in Burma,” Fahan says.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha

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