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Sex workers don't want to be saved by anti-traffickers

Thai sex workers don't want to be saved by poorly thought out anti-trafficking responses which ignore the fact that they are migrant sex workers not sex slaves.
A report on the human rights violations women are subjected to when
"rescued" by anti-trafficking groups who employ methods using deception, force and coercion
Empower, Chiang Mai

** "Anti-trafficking measures shall not adversely affect the human rights and dignity of persons in particular the rights of those who have been trafficked and of migrants, internally displaced persons refugees and asylum seekers."
- The Primacy of Human Rights; Number 3: Recommended principles and
guidelines on human rights and human trafficking report of the UN high commissioner for human rights to the economic and social council
reccommended principles on human rights and human trafficking. **

Empower Foundation is a Thai organization [started] in 1985. Empower
promotes opportunities for women workers in the entertainment industry.
Empower strives to promote these opportunities and rights to all women workers regardless of their country of origin.

Far from being a "bold new method" as being proclaimed, Empower Chiang Mai has been dealing with the issue of "raids and rescues" of women working in brothels for the past 11 years. Empower abhors the trafficking of any persons; forced labor including forced sex work; and the sexual abuse of children, whether for commercial exploitation or not.

Over the past three years there has been an increased international and national focus on the situation of women who have been trafficked.

However, the focus on trafficking in persons has meant many groups with little or no experience on the issues of migration, labor, sex work or women's rights have been created to take advantage of the large sums of money available to support anti-trafficking activities. Their inexperience and lack of contact with the sex worker community has meant they are unable or unwilling to differentiate between women who have been trafficked and migrant workers. They also show a great deal of trouble differentiating between women and girls, often applying identical standards and solutions for both. It is obviously inappropriate to treat a girl as an adult and just as obviously inappropriate to treat an adult as a child.

Empower has monitored the methods and results of these group's activities and we are very alarmed at the increasing violations and inhumane treatment women are subjected to by unworkable and unethical methods.

Empower has used the most recent experience of "rescue" to further
highlight our concerns.

Rescue by Trafcord with the support of the International Justice Mission, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2nd May 2003

Prior to the 2nd of May women from a brothel called Baan Rom Yen had been studying Thai daily with Empower, joining our outside activities e.g.
attending a workshop on migrant's rights, going to swimming lessons, going to a local water fall. Women also had access to the public health weekly and were provided with safe sex equipment and skills by Empower. None of these women had talked about being trafficked and when they discussed their work, plans and dreams none showed any need or wish for outside rescue.

On the 1st of May three of the women collected their savings from the
owner and contacted a van in order to take them home to Burma on Friday 2nd of May. One of these three went with a customer on the 1st of May and didn't come back. Her friends and employer were worried for her. The other women postponed their trip home in order to wait for her.

At 11pm May 2nd women heard people yelling "police". Those that could get away did and the others were "caught". Everyone, including the brothel owner saw the missing woman in the police car, saw her name on the arrest warrant and assumed that she had gone to the police.

** "Ensuring that trafficked persons are effectively protected from harm, threats or intimidation by traffickers and associated persons, To this end there should be no public exposure of the identity of trafficking victims and their privacy should be protected and respected."
- Guideline Six (6): Recommended principles and guidelines on human
rights and human trafficking report of the UN high commissioner for human rights to the economic and social council recommended principles on human rights and human trafficking. **

Journalists and photographers also accompanied the police and "rescue
team". Photos of the women were taken without their consent and appeared in the local papers and TV the next day.

** "States should protect the privacy of identity of victims of
trafficking in persons, inter alia, by making proceedings confidential."
- Article 6, Trafficking Protocol 2000 **

Women who were "rescued" understood they had been arrested. They had their belongings taken from them.

** "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of her property"
- UHRD Article 17(2) **

They were separated from each other. They were unable to contact friends, family or Empower.

** "No one shall be subjected to arbitrarily interference her privacy, family home or correspondence."
- UHRD Article 12 **

In all 28 women were "rescued". Some of the women were not employees of that brothel but were simply visiting friends when they were "rescued".
Women were transported by Trafcord and the police against their will to a Public Welfare Boys Home. Nineteen women were locked inside and have remained there for the past 31 days. We have no information on the whereabouts or situation of the other ten women.

**"Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of her liberty except in such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as established by law"
- Article 9 (1) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

"Women suspected of being trafficked must not be detained for longer than 10 days."
- Article 10 MOU: Measures of Prevention and Suppression of the
Trafficking in Woman and Children Act 1997 (Thailand) **

As soon as they had their mobile phones returned women contacted Empower.
They are only permitted to use their phones for a short time each evening and must hide in the bathroom to take calls outside that time. They report that they have been subjected to continual interrogation and coercion by Trafcord. Women understand that if they continue to maintain that they want to remain in Thailand and return to work that they will be held in the Public Welfare Boys Home or similar institution until they recant.
Similarly they understand that refusing to be witnesses against their
"traffickers" will further delay their release.

** "Migrant workers and their families shall have the right security and liberty of person .They shall be entitled to effective protection by the state against violence, physical injury threats and intimidation whether by public officials private individuals groups or institutions."
- Article 16 International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of their families.

"States shall ensure that trafficked persons are protected from further exploitation and harm and have access to adequate physical and psychological. Such protection and care shall not be made conditional on the capacity or willingness of people to cooperate in legal proceedings."
- Protection and Assistance Principle 8: Recommended principles and
guidelines on human rights and human trafficking report of the UN high commissioner for human rights to the economic and social council
recommended principles on human rights and human trafficking. **

Five days after the 'rescue" four women who had escaped the rescue team came to Empower Chiang Mai. They were still shaken and very worried about their friends and their own safety. They were shocked to hear that the raid had not been about arresting women but rather in order to 'rescue" those women who were victims of trafficking. Each of the women were emphatic that all the workers were well informed before coming, had made satisfactory salary arrangements with the employer, had the freedom to leave and all were 19 years and over. One woman who has a 50,000 baht advance from the owner had traveled home twice in the past two months to visit family etc. Although she had borrowed the money as an advance against her wages she felt no fear or threat. She and the others were all supported by the management to refuse customers, attend to health care, access safe working equipment, education and training. They were receiving an average of 600 Baht a day (the minimum wage in Chiang Mai Thailand is 133 Baht a day) They now find themselves unable to work.

** "States will ensure the rights of women to protection and working
conditions as well as the right to choose a profession"
- Article 11 c & f Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of
Discrimination against women.

"Everyone has the right to work to free choice of employment to just and favorable conditions of work and protection against unemployment " - Article 23 (1) UDHR **

They had fled the brothel leaving their possessions and savings behind. The brothel was now locked and they were unable to regain their goods.

** "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of her property"
- UHRD Article 17(2) **

These women have nowhere to stay, no money and therefore are unable to access basic needs including medical care and education.

** "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of herself and her family including food, clothing housing and medical care and necessary social servicees and the right to secure in the event of unemployment, sickness disability widowhood old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstance beyond her control."
- Article 25 (1) UDHR **

Many of the women come from Shan State in Burma. In an area where
systematic rape, forced labor, food shortages and a multitude of other human rights abuses have been well documented. (One of the most telling and relevant reports "License to Rape" released just last year) There is no real process whereby people fleeing the situation can claim refugee status in Thailand. After "rescue" their situation will be made known to Burmese authorities, local village officials and family members. Under these circumstances a safe and beneficial return home is impossible.

** "Repatriation of victims of trafficking: When a State Party returns a victim of trafficking in persons to a State Party of which that person is a national or had the right to permanent residence, such return shall be with due regard for the safety of that person and shall preferably be voluntary."
- Article 8 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in
Persons, Especially women and Children, Supplementing The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime UN 2000. **

On May 16th we found we were no longer able to contact the women by phone.
On May 26th we called the Public Welfare staff where nineteen women were being held. The majority of women have been transferred to a
rehabilitation center in central Thailand and the other seven will be sent to the same institution for an indefinite period. They are homesick, worried and furious and in the meantime their families are left without financial support. All the women being held plan to return to work as soon as possible after their inevitable deportation. This will of course result in them paying yet another transport fee and facing more risks, including the risk of being "rescued" again.

Traffickers and many anti-trafficking groups employ very similar methods to achieve their goals. Both groups deceive women, transport them against their will, detain them, and put them in dangerous situations.

Appendix One Continued
On the 12th of May Empower held a meeting on trafficking and
anti-trafficking responses with 64 female entertainment workers from 3 major centers in Thailand. The large majority of the group was women from Burma, some of who had at some time been "victims of trafficking" and all of who had at one stage or other enlisted help to migrate for work in Thailand.

They were unanimous in their recommendations that:
1. No person should be trafficked, or forced to work in work they have not chosen to do and that no child under the age of 18 years should be abused sexually either commercially or domestically.

2. Methods to combat trafficking must be revised and solutions found that do not violate the rights of workers but support true victims of

3. The rights of adult trafficked victims as workers must be acknowledged.
We should receive recognition of our work and compensation, so we are not financially worse off after our "rescue".

4. All women affected by trafficking or anti-trafficking measures must receive adequate compensation and if we are victims of trafficking we be given full support to seek asylum and/or residency with the right to work included.

5. The primary goal of prosecuting traffickers must be altered to a
primary goal of assisting trafficked women and children. We propose that if trafficked women and children (whether trafficked or not) are
continually rescued and assisted, the use of trafficked women and children will become unprofitable and entertainment places will only wish to employ those women who are over 18 years, informed and willing to work.

6. Understand that all women, who are unable to access travel documents and need or wish to migrate, must secure the assistance of an agent or broker. If our situation as refugees from Burma is not recognised we must secure work for the survival of our families and ourselves. While we are willing to work our illegal status leaves us with no recourse against exploitation by agents or employers regardless of the work we do.
Anti-trafficking groups must work toward improving the human rights
situation in Burma, securing the ability for women to travel
independently, and fully supporting the recognition of our refugee status.

7. Currently women who work in entertainment places have their own methods of assisting trafficked women, those being forced to work, and those under 18 years. Anti-trafficking dialogue and groups have yet to consider us as anti- trafficking workers and human rights defenders even though the numbers of women and children we assist far out way the handful women and children serviced by the recognised anti-trafficking groups. Instead we are ourselves caught up in the "rescues and repatriation". The latest stance from the USA government calling us "inappropriate partners" is just
the latest example among many of the way we are ignored and our expertise sidelined.

Empower appeals to anti-trafficking campaigners, funding bodies and policy makers to urgently and very carefully consider these recommendations and ensure that they protect the rights of the women they propose to assist.

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Date: Monday, February 14, 2005
Thailand: Report on sex workers affected by Tsunami
Empower, Thailand

Our current estimate is over 2,000 sex workers who were killed in Thailand on the 26th December 2004. More than 2,000 families lost a daughter, a sister, a mother, and their provider when the tsunami struck the South of Thailand. Two thousand friends are gone.

However estimates are not enough, every family, every friend, our whole community needs to know for sure "Is she really dead?"

"I know four women who arrived a couple of days before from the city of Korat, (in the north east of Thailand). They didn't have a room and were sleeping in the bar. The bar was ruined in the tsunami and we haven't seen those women since, we believe they were taken by the water. We don't know if we told their families where they were or not. We don't know their names or their addresses so we can't contact the family or even register them as missing."

"There were about fifty brothels in this area, small shantytown type shacks. Each brothel had at least ten workers who lived and worked in the brothels. Everyone was sleeping when the tsunami hit. There are no women or brothels left. All the women were from Burma. How will families ever know for certain where their daughters went?"

"I was on the beach massaging a customer when the tide went out really fast. I saw my work-mates and many other people running down, laughing and picking up the fish and prawns left stranded on the sand. Then the huge wave came I ran away and I haven't seen the others since."

"We know nothing yet about people on Krabi and many smaller islands including sex workers there. They are still out of bounds to all but government officials and only can be reached by helicopter."

"Lots of us bar workers rent rooms in the same building. It's away from the beach so was not damaged. But many women didn't come back after the tsunami yet. Maybe they went with customers and were in the bungalows...we don't know what has happened to them. Their things are in their rooms and the landlord doesn't know what to do either. "

"She always left her little boy at a nursery overnight while she worked and would come and get him in the late morning. She never came to get him after the tsunami, she would never leave him if she were alive so we believe she is dead"

"By law bars need a license to open. How can I go and report I have lost three workers when my business and their work is illegal?"

We know answering the question "Is she really dead?" is something that we need to do for each other, for those who died and for the loved ones left wondering.

Empower is working in the areas with sex workers, bar owners, brothel owners, tuk tuk drivers, customers, landlords and other members in the sex worker community to begin to create a way to find the answer for all those affected. It will be a slow, sad process that will need a lot of human resources.

What's Needed
Empower heard the same thing again and again in all the areas affected.

" We want to get back to work, that is the most important thing now. If we have work we can do everything for ourselves"

Women doing sex work here are fiercely independent and dedicated providers for their families.

"We have never had acceptance or help from society or the government so we do not look for it now. If we can get back to work we will help ourselves, our families and each other"

Thousands of other workers have also been affected but unlike entertainment workers many other occupations are protected under labor laws and the government social security scheme for access to assistance such as sickness benefits, unemployment benefits and disability allowances. Prior to the tsunami other migrant workers had the opportunity to register as workers and be protected under labor laws and secure from deportation. Despite our huge economic contributions to Thailand, entertainment workers have long been denied the recognition of our work as work under labor laws, and therefore denied access to social security benefits or migrant worker status.

Many sex workers cannot pay into the public social security or health schemes but we pay taxes on all the goods we buy and most pay some form of unofficial "tax' as part of our work.

"We pay 100 Baht every day to be able to give massages on the beach"

"Every woman here (Ranong) paid immigration and police 200 Baht every month. Will police or immigration look after us now?"

Last night, January 17th, we got news that a sex worker in Phuket committed suicide. In our 20 years of history in the sex worker community Empower has often noted that suicide among sex workers here is extremely rare. We don't underestimate the level of her desperation and sense of hopelessness. We know she was left unemployed by the tsunami, had no money to send to her children and was unable to make a 500 Baht payment on her loan that day. Social security would have provided her with 50% of her salary for a period of six months. Perhaps that would have given her the hope she needed, we will never know.

Recognition of sex work as work would never have prevented the tsunami but it would give us the same chance of survival that many others now have.

The provinces are major tourist destinations which receive nearly six million foreign tourists a year, half the national total. Phuket alone normally receives about 1.5 million tourists during the holiday season from November to February. The tourism business generates about 100 billion baht in foreign exchange in these areas. Tourists come to visit the natural beauty of the islands, relax in luxurious resorts and also to be entertained by sex workers employed in hotels, bars and massage parlors. Local and migrant sex workers have long been part of the attraction of these provinces and have generated billions of Baht for Thailand.

"I heard the (Thai) government is offering 2,000 Baht compensation for each person affected by the tsunami. But for women like us, who have no proof we work and come from other provinces, it would be impossible to get this compensation and it would be a huge hassle to even try. If I can work I don't need it, it can be used for those who really need it."

As Pi Noi Empower put it "Living people need some ways to bring back their lives. They wanted houses, boats, fishery tools, job, materials and equipment for earning income. Fishermen need boats, vendors need stalls, dancers need music, house keepers need hotel room, service workers need restaurants, taxi drivers need cars, massagers wanted to return to the mats on the beaches."

However finding work is proving difficult. Entertainment places in all the areas are mainly still closed. Bars are beginning to reopen the main tourist strip near Patong Beach Phuket, but there are very few customers. Some workers are committed to waiting it out and staying and some are beginning to talk about moving to find work in other places.

Usually we ask our friends whom we trust when we think about moving. We usually have the luxury of time to think about it and make plans. The situation now is different in that women will need to make decisions in a hurry. Empower is exploring ways to collect information about living and working in other areas, and how to give sex workers easy access to the information. Our experience tells us that communication within our sex worker community is best in delivered in person via the sex worker grapevine and backed up by distributing brochures with clear useful facts. Once again this will be a lengthy process.

Trafficking and Tsunami
We have been very disappointed and alarmed to see the ongoing rhetoric about "traffickers and the tsunami". Prior to the tsunami in Asia we were already being flooded with misleading information about trafficking and harmful anti-trafficking responses.

An International NGO working in the affected provinces that had previously adopted an anti-trafficking focus and actively participated in the recommended US practice of "raid and rescues" is now experiencing extreme difficulties. Their main focus is offering health services to documented and undocumented migrants from Burma, including working with undocumented migrant sex workers. We contacted them to ask about the situation of sex workers in one of the effected areas. Unfortunately they had previously participated in a "raid and rescue" in a brothel the area and as a consequence had been unable to return since. Not only had sex workers been without regular services for 3 months, also in this time of crisis the only International NGO in the area was unable to act. In another area, employers detained and abused the staff of the NGO before handing them over to the police. Later another 3 of the NGO workers were severely beaten by gangs related to employers. Empower rejects the misuse of power by authorities and violence in any form. Relationships prior to the tsunami were unworkable and the crisis exacerbated pre-existing tensions causing more neglect and distress to the migrants.

Empower wants to reinforce the need for those working with migrant populations to establish work practices that don't create situations where migrants are isolated from the services they need. We want to emphasize that groups working with marginalized populations like sex workers or other migrant workers need to have strong roots in those communities to be able to make sound judgements about actions and possible consequences.

Sex workers and all other people affected by the tsunami in Thailand have said very clearly that their priority is to get back to work.

Of course anyone coming into these areas and offering a chance to make money is going to find many takers. We would all have to take the chance. The only thing that may be useful to would be having access to information and ways to check out job offers, some emergency relocation assistance and an immediate amnesty on undocumented migrants in the areas. in reality this would be hard enough to implement for accepted occupations like builder's laborers and domestic work.

In order for sex workers to have access to this kind of service it would mean that there would have to be recognition that sex work is work and that migrating to do sex work in is a legitimate option that should be supported with work cards, visas etc.

Unfortunately, it has been clear to Empower that much of the anti-trafficking focus is aimed at abolishing the sex industry. On the ground here in Thailand there has been a lack of concern for people trafficked into domestic work, seafarers, and factories. There has also been a lack of concern for the rights of migrant sex workers. We don't hold any hope that post tsunami the focus will shift to address the real needs of those people vulnerable to being trafficked.

In terms of sex workers, the most needed action to prevent trafficking is to acknowledge sex work as work and therefore enable sex workers to migrate legally, independently and safely. We fear instead we will see that our access to independent migration and access to safe fair work made even more difficult.

At the moment for most migrant sex workers from Burma in the South of Thailand, who survived, may well see it as case of being "offered an opportunity" rather than being "trafficked".

Even in those areas where entertainment places were not directly affected by the tsunami itself, working has become impossible. In many of the affected areas most of the customers of migrant sex workers were other migrant workers e.g. construction site workers, seafarers. Many of these men were also lost in the tsunami and most of those who survived have since been arrested or are in hiding from arrest.

"There used to be 30,000 registered migrant workers in the affected provinces but according to government officials there are only 3,000 migrants left now and 1,900 have been "assisted" home by the authorities. " MAP and HREIB

Many foreign citizens were affected by the tsunami and their governments were quick to establish a presence in the areas and assist their citizens, both living and the dead. The Burmese government in stark contrast has said and done nothing for the tens of thousands of its citizens hit by the tsunami. Calls to the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok have gone unanswered since the tsunami hit on the 26th December. The people from Burma can expect no help from their government.

The Thai government who is struggling to manage to care for the paying tourists and it's own nationals is offering very little.

"The authorities say they will only arrest those migrants who do not have work permits. How many people managed to hold onto their ID in the tsunami? How many of the migrants being held in the Immigration Detention Center had spent precious time and money registering for a temporary ID card last July and then again for a work permit in August, but lost them to the sea. The employment offices say they will re-issue work permits to migrants who can get to their office and give the correct details of their previous registration. But how will the migrants know that? And if they do know it, how can they get to the employment office without being arrested on the way?

If migrant workers want to stay and work, they are liable to arrest and deportation by the immigration. If they want to go home to recuperate, they are liable to coercion and violence by the employers to make them stay.
As with everyone else who survived the tsunami, they are dealing with their own nightmares, haunted by the images of the bodies of their dead friends who they did not dare to go and identify for fear of being arrested. Now they dare not go to the food distribution points. So the migrants have to live in hiding, continually on the move. In response to charges that migrants from Burma were looting, if they are scavenging for pieces of broken down homes to make shelters and for food, it is because, having already survived a military dictatorship and a tsunami, they must be able to survive this. "
from HREIB and MAP Foundation 12th January 2005

We have tried to give a sense of what the situation is like and how it is still it is difficult for all of us to see how best to proceed. Please feel free to contact us with ideas, comments or suggestions. You can also pass this second update along to wherever you think it may be useful.

"To make a difference....we will have to do impossible things and think impossible thoughts, and that is only done in a community. Without a sense of community, an individual can not hold of her radical insights, she becomes confused, she forgets what she knew... We call on each other to create acts of courage and imagination, but they are literally impossible without a community which recognizes and authorizes each others initiatives. "

The Power We Have
The Power We Share


Empower continues the fundraising in the national sex worker communities of Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and the global sex worker network.
For more information contact Empower 09 4353853 or make donations directly to

Bank : Khrung Thai Bank
Branch: Si Yek Sanaam Bin
Account name :Ms Pornpit,Ms Buyu Vanderstein Ms Thanat Laovilawanyakul
Account number : 554 1 1 32922 4

Link 21.Feb.2005 12:49


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