On paper, PiiChai might look like a success story. From small beginnings as the son of corn farmers, he is now in his third year of higher education studying at the College of Agriculture. He dreams of learning a foreign language like Korean so that he can go work abroad.
But if you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find layers of vulnerability. His family is in trouble. His parents do not own the land they farm; they must rent the land from others and farm the corn to pay off their debts. But their yield has not paid off. It has only added to a crushing debt that has risen now to more than 100,000 baht (almost $3,000). On top of this financial burden, PiiChai’s father has developed health problems that local doctors have not been able to successfully diagnose. One doctor said it was an enlarged prostate; another said it was gallstones. He has been given various medications, but he has not gotten any better. He is losing weight.
All of these concerns weigh upon PiiChai, and they have affected his performance in school. His grades have not been good, and there is a chance he might have to repeat some of his classes in order to graduate. What one might read as inspiration–his dream to learn Korean and work abroad–might also be read as desperation to escape his dismal circumstances and a desire to get out, any way possible.
Therein lies the threat. In PiiChai’s world, there is only debt and illness and servitude to owners of land more wealthy and powerful than anyone he knows. If he cannot maintain his focus, if college becomes too daunting, or the debts too crippling, he may look for a way out, and in his desperation, become seduced by the promise of a good job or easy money delivered by the wrong hands.
If we don’t look too closely at his challenges or his parents’ and community’s situation, we might never see the danger lurking. While it’s true that a community’s general education level is positively correlated with a reduced risk of trafficking, some studies suggest the individual’s is not: sometimes the family’s highest educated member is the most vulnerable, sent off to work as the family’s best chance for survival.
But we see how they fall prey. They are offered a job elsewhere, but once they show up for the job, their documents are seized and they are forced into slave labor. This is a typical trafficking case. Sometimes it’s even more complex: they choose to work in the bars and brothels knowing full well what they are getting themselves into, but also knowing that they could bring in a lot of money for their families and save them from such crippling debt.
From a legal standpoint, the latter case looks like consent. From a prevention standpoint, PiiChai is not free. He is merely trading one set of shackles for another. Our challenge is to remain close to him so he knows he is not alone. He has support. Our hope is to help him continue his studies and find a better way out of the situation, so that he always feels he has choices, and not just between that of two evils. Here is where close mentorship remains one of the most powerful tools we have, and here is why we always choose to go deep rather than broad, for if we never looked too closely, we might never see how vulnerable he is.