Our Law Centre works to help local hilltribe communities on all types of legal issues, both criminal and civil. We deal with cases on an individual basis, and our team is never short of work, unfortunately. The Mirror Foundation's trafficking project work is labour intensive, and requires a dedicated and knowledgable staff, who are fully conversant in a number of tribal languages, as well as Thai and English. The team is comprised entirely of Akha and Lahu hilltribe members, who have worked together for many years now.
The individual cases are picked up by the staff of our Law Centre, usually by villagers coming to our office, but quite often when the team is out on another case - 'off the cuff' conversations regularly uncover abuses or legal issues which we can help with. The team not only works with the local community, but also with local government - working from within the system can help change bad laws or expose corruption.
To extend the project's work - to include taking presentations out to local schools and villages, with the aim of informing children, parents and teachers, of the dangers of trafficking and how to prevent or solve problems - is currently not an option. This increase in workload would require extra staff, extra wages, and a stable funding programme (minimum of three years to be able to recruit the right applicants).
Every child has the right to happiness and to grow up in a safe environment. Unfortunately, among the poor of northern Thailand, especially the hilltribes, this right is often not realized. The cities in northern Thailand are full of children who have left school as early as the fourth grade, to struggle earning money for their family. Worse yet, the extreme poverty of the region is fertile ground for those wishing to traffic women and children to wealthier areas of the country and the world.
You might not notice it at first - all the girls in the restaurant look like they might be the owner's daughters. That girl who is stocking groceries next to you might be just trying to make a little money after school.
And those girls hanging out in front of the nightclubs and massage parlors, even if they are...well, you know...they couldn't possibly be hilltribe girls, because the hilltribes have strong villages, right? Aren't the hilltribes firmly rooted in their traditional ways? Don't hilltribe families stay in the mountains protecting their children from the exploitation of the city?
Look again. See their slumped shoulders, their sad eyes, the heavy way in which they carry themselves, the look of self-consciousness whenever they speak Thai? The low-end labour jobs of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and other northern Thai cities are filled almost exclusively by hilltribe youth struggling to make about $35 per month to help support their family. And while that Akha girl who just served you your fried rice is far from lucky, she at least, probably, is safe and has a choice to go home if she wants. And that makes her much luckier than the many hilltribe women and children who are exploited, trafficked and will never see home again.
Yes, in traditional hilltribe villages, we would not see youth being trafficked or exploited. But, as the Thai government forced these migratory people to become stationary and to farm one piece of fatigued land; as interactions with the material culture of the city became more frequent, turning relative poverty into actual poverty; and as the lack of education, vocational skills, ability to speak Thai, opportunities, Thai citizenship, knowledge and awareness of the dangers of leaving the village converged, the former safe haven of the mountains has become the source of endless stream of innocent people unprepared to cope with the unjust situations they are thrown into.
Sweatshops and prostitution are the high-profile exploitation scenarios, but seemingly honest work can become instantly become dangerous without the naive young people in the middle having caught the subtle warning signs:
Trafficking, forced and bonded labour, are still major problems which, until they are solved, will never be ignored by us.