Planning a summer vacation? Want to be an ethical traveler? Here are a few key things to know about trafficking and tourism—and how to be an aware traveler.
We tend to think of trafficking as something that happens in seedy bars, dark alleys, and dirty basements. We think of it as underground—largely hidden from view. What may be harder to realize is how much of it happens in broad daylight, and in plain sight. The most obvious one you’ll see in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries is child beggars. Hawking anything from roses and jasmine flowers to toys and trinkets, through the charm of smiles or the tug of pity, children will come up to your table in restaurants or tap on your car window or stop you on streets to ask for money. You may or may not see an adult watching them from a discrete distance. It is impossible to know if that adult is a parent or pimp.
The Problem with Child Beggars
Aside from the obvious problem that children deserve childhood and are not to be used for labor whether by parent or pimp, a significant number have been trafficked outright. Traffickers offer impoverished families large sums of money in exchange for having their child sell flowers for a few months. The traffickers give the families a large deposit, and then monthly “rent” under the agreement they would return the child soon. But the child never returns and the payments dwindle, then stop.
Then, when the child grows up, or is otherwise deemed no longer cute enough to sell flowers, they are trafficked into other trades, most often the sex industry. By this time, selling on streets is the only life the child knows, or pimps have gotten them drug addicted, and there is no escape.
What You As a Tourist Can Do
Don’t Give Money to Child Beggars
As heart wrenching as it may be, anti-trafficking professionals widely advise not giving money to child beggars. By curtailing demand and demonstrating that it is not a lucrative business, we hope to help end the trade. Giving money will only feed the beast. Some people have advised giving children other items: toothbrushes, trinkets, etc. or even engaging in small play with stamps and puppets. While such advice comes from a good heart, I would argue it still provides incentives to sell children when relatives think they can still get something worthwhile by putting kids on the streets. As for engaging in play with them, as a parent, I also think it is a strange lesson to want to teach kids: rewarding them for offering themselves to strangers.
Don’t Go to Red Light Bars
With the sex industry as lucrative as it is, this issue must be addressed. Even if a customer thinks he is not engaging a minor, it’s highly possible he might be. Even if he isn’t, he is likely supporting a business that does sell minors. Not all sex workers work voluntarily. And it must be said: sex trafficking and child commercial exploitation violates both U.S. law and Thai law, even if the offender is traveling abroad. An American traveler who is caught as a sex offender in Thailand will be prosecuted by both countries. (Likewise with many other foreign nations.)
If You See Something, Say Something
Tourists and travelers are also in a unique position to act, as airplanes, airports, trains, buses, transit stations, and hotels are how traffickers get victims from one place to another. If you see something suspicious, speak up. A growing number of tourism industry professionals, from flight crew to hotel management, are becoming trained in identifying potential trafficking victims and alerting the appropriate authorities who have the legal mandate to act. For example, if you see an older, well dressed gentleman with a young girl who does not appear to be his daughter and who appears distressed, alert trained professionals who would have access to their identification and know how to proceed appropriately.
Support Trafficking Prevention and Aftercare Operations
Finally, if your heart is truly engaged by the children you see or the issue of trafficking in general, support responsible nonprofits through donations to continue providing trafficking victims with the emotional, financial and social support they need to return to healthier lives, and to prevent trafficking from happening before it starts. It is the concerted efforts of networks that have proven most effective in fighting trafficking and child exploitation.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She is half American, and half Thai.