To say that the COVID pandemic has disrupted tourism in Thailand would be an understatement. It has so disabled an industry that is a critical pillar in the country’s economic strength, that the viability of even the most famous “institutions” such as the Full Moon parties are called into question. Analysts say it could take up to five years for the tourism industry to fully recover, impacting more than 7 million workers. (Source: Bloomberg) The impact is felt not only amongst those who work directly with tourists–hotels, restaurants, tour guides, vans & buses–it also has knock-on effects for connected industries such as those that supply them. The loss of jobs and wages ripples outward–and as people become more economically stressed, we see increased vulnerability to something else: trafficking.
Job Loss Leads to Desperation to Make Money Any Way Possible
According to our Thailand Executive Director, Veerawit Tianchainan, most businesses were able to use savings to cope with the first and second waves of COVID, but by this most recent third wave, they have been completely tapped out. A lot of jobs were lost and recent and upcoming graduates who had planned for careers in tourism are also watching their job prospects disappear. As he explains, “there’s dire need for money among the people in the country, and as we all know, when people are in need of money, they will resort to commercial sex and other things to make money. And lots of online perpetrators prey on youth who are in need of cash. That has been reported in many places, not only Thailand. We are not an exception; we see that as well.”
It’s possible that tourists will be allowed to come on an experimental basis, for example, with “bubble” strategies. However, Veerawit expects that this will further increase trafficking risks. As the COVID restrictions continue, young people will be pressured by parents that don’t have the money to support them. Even adults will have to resort to these methods to make extra money.
“More young people are getting into this business. They’ve been hired to do entertainment at the clients’ house directly because, with the COVID lockdown, there are no pubs, bars, or karaoke open. This opens up a new opportunity where people would advertise, or, through agents, ask boys and girls to come to their house. They organize private parties for their own groups, and that is even more dangerous because [the youths] would be subject to rape, torture, or even murdered because of that. This is happening more and more. We can see it in the news more often…they will be coming to the country when there is a lot of need tempting those youths to go to those tourists even more.”
Prolonged economic pressures lead to risk, but at this point, the opposite scenario–where everything opens up quickly and tourists rush in–also poses significant risks. The surge in demand, combined with needs that are already pressing, are a combination that pushes people toward the “quick money” available in the commercial sex trade.
How We’re Responding to This Challenge
Many of our students who had part-time jobs lost them, and students who had expected to be able to get jobs suddenly watched opportunities vanish. We’re working even more closely with students, families, and the extended communities than ever before. We’re responding in three main ways: increasing awareness about potential exploitation and risks, finding creative ways to re-think opportunities, and using this time to build on skill sets.
We’re educating our students, their parents, as well as the children’s friends about the risks of online sexual exploitation and about how human traffickers are trying to prey on them during this economic hardship. We’re also expanding this message’s reach to new areas in Chiang Rai and in Nan.
We’re finding job opportunities for our students, and in lieu of that, we find other ways to help them become more job-ready and open to other job possibilities. For example, we work with some of the bigger companies, like the CP groups that run 7-11, to access internships that could become paying jobs later. We also support kids who want to learn vocational skills, like hairdressers or baristas. Our mentors speak to them about career development and career advice, opening their minds beyond the narrow possibilities they see immediately in front of them and raising their awareness that there are more options to choose from. As Veerawit puts it, “Our children need that kind of input that helps them be able to see the world as it is, bigger than just what they have experienced. That really helps. We’ve invited special guests to share with them about jobs besides the regular 4 or 5 careers they normally identify when you ask them what they want to be in the future.”
Building Skills & Capacities
Our sustainable livelihoods program also works closely with families to support income generation. We provide some with 0% interest loans, or with technical support, advice to improve the products that they have, and for those who’ve lost a lot of export business (such as coffee growers), helping connect them with new buyers.
We invite people with experience in entrepreneurship to come talk with our students and their families. For example, a friend who had run food businesses for a long time, in the States and in Thailand, came and led two-day sessions with the children and our staff and some of the parents in our sustainable livelihood program. The session trained them on entrepreneurship, and at the end, they practiced running a noodle shop. Veerawit says, “So many hadn’t had a chance to try to make noodles for themselves. They tried it, and discovered it’s not that difficult, and it opened up their minds a lot. They really liked the training and actually asked for more. Kru Ball wants to have that session in Nan as well. The ideas are really well received.” We also encourage the children to work together with their parents in income generation activities, which adds to their skill sets as well as potentially opening up a future source of income.
How We’re Working Alongside the Tourism Industry
Although business for hotels has almost completely stopped, we’re working with a coalition of agencies and organizations dedicated to Child Safe and Friendly Tourism to support the hotel industry with trainings, seminars, and workshops to keep hotels free from human trafficking and keep them safe for children, so that traffickers will not use their hotels for these activities. Some hotels even say that in this time when they don’t have so many customers, they are able to focus on training their staff.
When asked about differences between traditional hotels versus more unregulated options like AirBnBs, Veerawit adds, “We work with 3, 4, 5-star hotels on this project and there have been discussions that for these 4, 5-star hotels, it’s not very often that human traffickers use their services. But still there are, and there were in the past, and we realize that the 1, 2-star hotels will be where this business happens. But it’s very difficult to get them on board. That is why we want to cooperate with the government because they can enforce it. That’s the message that we got from meeting with the top people in the government. They’re looking at this as one of the areas they can improve their scores in the US TIP Report, something they want to add as positive developments that they’re working on, and they are planning to enforce it through all the hotels that are regulated or unregulated. That would help a lot; it’s beyond what the NGOs can do. We cannot enforce the hotels, or regular AirBnBs and places like that.”
In the meantime, we aim to encourage them with awards, including from the Thai government, to give them recognition for their commitment to Child Safe & Friendly Tourism. One hope, for example, is to organize some form of co-advertisement with Agoda and Booking.com, so that when tourism returns, they’ll have something they can promote about themselves as well. Getting this important sector up and running again in a sustainable and child friendly way will be a key turning point in coming out of the COVID pandemic.