by: Lucy McCray, Director of Strategy
We’ve talked about how COVID increases the risk of trafficking. We have also talked about how the danger of online sexual exploitation is a growing problem. In the last six months or so, these two challenges coalesced into a new form of trafficking and exploitation, preying on many Thais from marginalized communities, especially those in Northern Thailand. A growing number of Thai nationals are being trafficked to neighboring countries and forced to perform labor for places like call centers and illegal online gambling sites.
This Emerging Trend Reverses the Flow of Traffic
Historically, a large portion of the flow of smuggled migrants and others trafficked went from neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Laos into Thailand because Thailand had the stronger economic development. However, this dynamic has recently been flipped on its head. Desperate for economic opportunity, running out of money due to COVID, with rising prices and decreased income, many Thais – including cases from Chiang Rai – are enticed by job offers they see online, often on social media. These jobs promise $500-$1,000 USD per month with travel, food, and living expenses paid for. According to the Thai National Statistic Office as of 2019, the average income of a household in Chiang Rai is $431 per month – so, these offers promise as much as more than double. The posted jobs are based in neighboring countries – for example, Cambodia and Laos – where businesses might move to escape stringent regulations in neighboring countries. Online and in-person gambling businesses have boomed during the pandemic.
Full of hope and a desire to support their families, Thais take these jobs which seem too good to be true. Sadly, they are in fact too good to be true. According to reports, after accepting the job, the people are smuggled across the borders, either to Laos in small boats at night, or to Cambodia by van, crossing through the jungle on foot in the middle of the night. These crossings are inherently dangerous and illegal. Upon arriving at their destination, the workers find that the jobs they are required to work are not what they were promised.
They are often taken to remote compounds in special economic zones, many of which are run by Chinese owners. After being put through quarantine, the workers are told they owe debts of around $3,000-$6,000 USD per person for transportation, food, and living expenses. They are then given smartphones and computers and forced to find Thai customers to take part in online, illegal, gambling sites or in scam call centers asking for investors in fake businesses. They are forced to work 12 or 16 hours a day and are kept in unsuitable living conditions. If the workers do not meet their quota, they face violence and harassment. They are only paid a commission based on the ‘customers’ they scam into the schemes.
Many workers report being afraid to reach out to the local police or embassy because they have seen others harmed if the boss discovers they sought outside help. For those who do reach out to local authorities, the process can be lengthy, sometimes taking months before they are extricated from the situation.
The number of Thais experiencing these forms of exploitation has risen significantly. The Department of Consular Affairs estimates that in 2021 there have been 500-700 such victims.
For those who have been removed from the situation, the complex, illegal nature of the crime, combined with challenging cross-border relations, means that they may not be identified as victims of trafficking. Those who are repatriated to Thailand end up in the same place they started, with limited economic opportunities.
Responding to this Threat
We are adapting our response to address this issue because many in our communities are at risk, especially given the proximity of Chiang Rai to the special economic zone in Laos. We provide trainings and raise awareness about the reality of these “too good to be true” job offers. We work to ensure our students have the opportunity to stay in school, and that when there is pressure to leave school and work, they have an adult they can turn to for help. We strive to support families to increase their income, so they have greater means to support their families without sending their loved ones to risky jobs abroad. Trafficking and exploitation are too high a price to pay for simply believing the wrong job offer.