Monday, March 30, 2009

Migrant Thai sex workers often face greater problems abroad


Published: 30/03/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Outlook

After constantly being beaten up by her husband, Pat* decided she had to break free financially, at any cost.

Seeing her neighbour who worked as a sex worker wearing a lot of gold accessories and building a beautiful bungalow for her parents was enough to convince Pat to gamble for the same fortune through prostitution.

Jan's* father was up to his ears in debt and she could not stand to see him suffer. "I only thought about my family. I wanted money to pay off the debts for my father," said Jan about her decision to work in Japan's flesh trade.

Ask any sex worker, and they will similarly say money pressures are the main reason why they do what they are doing, said researcher Pataya Ruenkaew and founder of Thais Articulate Their Rights Abroad (Thara), a group in Germany that helps Thais handle legal matters.

Pataya was a graduate student in Germany when she first developed an interest in the problem of migrant sex workers. It was a time when Germany faced an influx of illegal Thai women. As a Thai student there, she helped as a volunteer translator for them when they had legal problems. Her interests later led her to study about the same problem in Japan, another popular destination for Thai sex workers.

Almost 30 years on since her first encounter with Thai sex workers abroad, the situation has changed minimally, she said.

As of 2007, there were 53,952 legal Thai residents in Germany. The number does not include illegal residents and Thai people who have changed their nationality. It is estimated that there are some 100,000 Thais in Germany at present, as opposed to 2,000 in 1975, when the male to female ratio was more or less 1:1.

"There is hardly any change in this industry. Many women still seek sex-related jobs overseas for financial reasons, and increasingly so," said Pataya, citing the spiralling number of Thai women migrating to European countries and, surprisingly, the higher level of their education.

The "gold rush" began in the 1970s, she said, when many sex workers married their customers and became success stories in their home villages. The number of Thai women in Germany leaped to 3,298 in 1980, and 46,438 in 2007.

According to Pataya's research titled "Thai Women's Rights in Transnational Migration", there are three major reasons that prompt the decision to migrate: Educational opportunities, job opportunities and family problems. The last two are the most influential.

In the past, trafficked women were viewed as innocent victims who were deceived into prostitution. Today, Pataya said, the situation has changed. It is not so much deception as false advertising. Many of them know beforehand what sort of job they are getting themselves into. What they do not know is how difficult it will be to make a living and to come back. The problem, therefore, lies less in deception to make a choice and more in the exploitation of the women's choice, she explained.

Jai*, one of Pataya's interviewees, said she had wanted a better life and to get away from the living conditions in Thailand. Despite the risks, migration was "better than starving in Thailand, where I worked my hands to the bone trying to provide for my Thai ex-husband."

As with Pat and Jan, Jai believed the opportunities in other countries were plentiful. The perception of working abroad seems illustrious, because most women in this business send home a lot of money.

"These women would usually come home wearing beautiful clothes and expensive accessories, carrying with them toys for the children in their village and money to build a new, bigger house. This creates a false promise, especially for children, that working abroad is easy money, and a farang husband is a ticket out of poverty."

The glorious image and the mostly boastful word of mouth, however, can be misleading and even deceptive. While they might be told they can make 5,000 baht a day, it is neglected to say how much food and accommodation will cost. After all is deducted, the worker will have next to nothing left.

"The migrant sex workers send home a lot of money, but usually the money is not spent constructively. Many of the women I have helped complained that the money they'd sent to their family to build a house was spent on something less useful, such as drinking and buying a big television."

Despite state disapproval and occasional crackdowns, the transnational sex industry flourishes, broadening the crime to that of human human trafficking. It is virtually impossible for women with limited knowledge and funds to go abroad on their own, so darker powers step in and exploit them, leaving these women at the bottom of the long and dangerous food chain, she added.

Enter the "boss" who takes care of travelling documents and cooperates with a network of agents in the destination countries, the "escort" who takes the women to that country and hands them over to another local agent and the "tax mother" who buys them. The agent gets the money, and the women get the job.

And that's where slavery begins.

The women sold to the tax mother immediately owe a certain amount, from 200,000 to a million baht. The money they make will be deducted until the debt, or "tax", has been completely paid. This could take a few years, a few decades or, in some cases, a lifetime.

Jan said in the interview with Pataya that most women would not even think of cheating the system because the boss usually knows the women's families threateningly well. If they cheat, nobody knows what will happen to the families they left behind.

The government has come up with ways to stop Thai women from entering the transnational sex industry, from stricter travelling regulations to heavier punishments. The attempt, however, simply shut one door and opened several illegal windows.

"These sex trafficking agents are fast-evolving and they have good connections. There is no stopping them," Pataya said.

To get these women to their destination countries, the agents have many tricks to fool the immigration police. From the use of fake passports, overstaying a tourist visa or entering through a land border, to making excuses during flight transit in order to enter a country, it is almost impossible to anticipate the various tricks.

"In one case, the whole family travelled together on a flight that was scheduled for transit in Japan. The mother then asked the child to fake being sick to fool the airport officers that he needed to be sent to hospital immediately. Once the family was issued a transit visa, the mother never returned."

Going into a country illegally usually means the person cannot leave again. That's another thing the workers have not been told before they make the decision.

Pataya explained that these women either do not know or do not care how they will come back to Thailand, because to them today is all that matters, and the future is the future.

If a woman is arrested in the destination country for an illegal stay, she will be sent back to Thailand and her name will be on a no-entry list for several years, or sometimes for life. That is not where the cycle ends.

"In that situation, most women will not give up because they still need to make money or to pay off the tax. Consequently, they have to find a way to re-enter, and of course it has to be illegal. The choices range from changing their name to buying a deceased person's identity."

The first choice is now not very practical because even if the person changes his or her name, the 13-digit ID number cannot be changed. Buying a new identity is easier and safer.

"When someone in a rural area passes away, they will tell the family of the deceased not to apply for a death certificate. The agent or the woman will then buy the birth certificate to apply for a new ID card with her picture on it, and after that she can become a new person."

Although there are many ways to legalise their presence, many remain illegal. The legal problems not only afflict the sex workers, but they also spread to their children, who have no legal documents when they are born. These children cannot have a birth certificate because their mothers are illegal in that country. They cannot go to school, and as a result cannot get a good job. "That is a complete waste of human resources," Pataya commented.

In 2007, Thai sex workers overseas reportedly sent back home more than 30 billion baht. This statistic, coupled with the rising number of migrant sex workers, implies that something must have gone wrong with the government's plan to eradicate sex trafficking.

"The top-down approach doesn't work because the middle-class does not know poverty and the pressure it entails. It would be unfair to ban them from seeking jobs outside the country because we do not have better offers for them," Pataya commented, referring to her interview with a sex worker who had said she would not have gone abroad in the first place if Thailand offered "a well-paying job and a rich husband".

Migration, she said, is a personal and rightful choice, as stated in the United Nations' International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Sending them back home or preventing them from migrating, therefore, is against the convention.

"Because we cannot stop them, the best remedy is to prepare them for the new environment and educate them so that they will not be taken advantage of too much. This is a pressing issue and we have to act on it immediately to protect them. There has been too much of passing the blame and pointing fingers. The solution calls for collaboration of various sectors," said Pataya, who rejects the authorities' standard explanation that domestic problems are the priority, and international ones have to wait.

She said the first crucial step to tackling this chronic problem is decriminalisation of the profession. "We should not label sex workers as criminals and punish them. Denying the problem is not going to help solve the situation. The demand is there, and of course supply will follow."


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