DISCLAIMER 30/06/17: Since publishing this story in February of 2015, Thailand's State Attorney has charged Mickey Choothesa with fraud due to the alleged misdirection of funds raised in COSA's name. Following the allegations, COSA's US board ceased operations in Thailand, and with the help of Thai authorities arranged new housing and education for the girls who had been living at the COSA shelter. Allegations have also been made by a team of documentary makers regarding the histories of the girls formerly in COSA's care, with a number of these girls disputing on camera that they were ever trafficked or "at risk". Our independent investigation into Choothesa is ongoing.
This article first appeared on VICE UK.
The highland border village of Baan Thatafang sits alone on a small hilltop by the edge of North Thailand. Below, the Salween River's brown, treacle waters slowly wind south, the meandering current demarcating Thailand's border with neighboring Burma, whose dark green mountains dominate the village vista.
The view is breathtaking, yet Baan Thatafang's idyllic setting belies a major issue that affects many more villages like it: human trafficking. Baan Thatafang has now become one of the latest ethnic minority settlements to be identified by local NGOs as being at threat from Thailand's sprawling business in the trafficking of desperate people.
An estimated 1 million ethnic minority people live in North and West Thailand, but exact numbers are hard to come by. Many villages are informal; entire groups roam around large areas, surviving through swidden and subsistence agriculture. Most importantly, though, huge numbers of people are unregistered.
In the Thai Government's last statement on registration, way back in 2005, its Interior Ministry estimated that some 50 percent of these groups remain unregistered under any legal status category. Without registration and ID cards, these peoples end up living in a limbo of "statelessness."
UN research in these regions has long identified this lack of legal identity as the single greatest threat to these communities.
In a UNIAP (UN Inter-Agency Project on Trafficking) report from 2001, the risks of being officially "stateless" is made brutally clear. Without their legal status, these peoples are put under a cornucopia of constraints and handicaps. They are not permitted ownership of land, access to state medical care, suffrage, school or marriage certifications, free travel nor the ability to work outside their own province. These suffocating restrictions are key ingredients to the melting pot of desperation and easy exploitation that traffickers have long preyed on.
Steps have certainly been taken at both the governmental level and on the international level, most notably the more decisive 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act and UNESCO's Highland Citizenship and Birth Registration Project.
Yet in mid-2014, the US State Department's latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report downgraded Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest grade, putting it amongst the likes of North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the report, the US State Department specifically cited "…members of ethnic minorities, and stateless persons… are at the greatest risk of being trafficked."
The unregistered masses continue to be exploited.
"We know a few girls who work in the red light district now who came from our target communities, because they couldn't find any jobs [due to their lack of registration]." Explains Mickey Choothesa, founder of the local anti-trafficking organisation COSA (Children of Southeast Asia). "Usually, if they have opportunities to stay at school, a strong community base, or any other opportunities really, you find that they will not get mixed up with trafficking."
Mickey has been actively working against the trafficking of young girls from hill tribe communities for nearly a decade with COSA. "We focus on girls who are being misled and don't have that opportunity of choice," he explains.
While we may think of trafficking through a western mindset, which evokes scenes of midnight snatch-and-grabs (which do happen), Mickey explains that most of those trafficked from the hill tribes are simply economically desperate. Devoid of opportunity, they sell themselves – or their children – without fully understanding the debt bondage and slave-like conditions they will end up in. At COSA, Mickey tries to identify these vulnerable individuals and provide decent opportunities for them before the spectre of trafficking strikes.
Since its inception in 2006, COSA's Chiang Mai base has slowly expanded to include a school bus service for isolated villages, outreach programmes in the hill tribes, educational programmes and a large shelter, where some 27 at-risk girls now live, and many more have found sanctuary in the past.
In his office, Mickey sits among a plethora of military-grade equipment – a reminder of his previous life as a US military photographer, and handy when working in the world of human trafficking. Bulletproof vests rest against a table heaving with first aid equipment. A small pistol peers out from a nearby bag. "You've got to be prepared man," he says with a shrug when I express my surprise.
Outside, a small group of girls trickle back to the shelter after finishing at the nearby school. Most have been taken in by COSA after their individual living situations were deemed "at-risk" to trafficking by Mickey and his social workers.
"For example, we have two girls whose mother is a sex worker. We found she just couldn't take care of her two daughters," Mickey explains when I ask how he identifies who is vulnerable. "They have never been to school, are always alone at home. We deem that to be a high-risk environment, so we got the girls out and into our shelter."
As the years have progressed, COSA, like many other local NGOs, has found it necessary to work in conjunction with the local authorities. Unfortunately, these local forces are occasionally levied with charges ranging from incompetence to collaboration with the traffickers – a problem that local NGOs have experienced, too.
"It's absolutely necessary to make sure you know who you are working with," Phensiri Pansiri explains to me with regards to the authorities. As programme coordinator of FOCUS (Foundation of Child Understanding), previously TRAFCORD (Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit Northern Thailand), Pansiri is in almost constant communication with the government and the local authorities for her work.
"We have had times before where we have given details to some police and the details were leaked. Then you know that person cannot be trusted," she says.
"When you deal with human trafficking, you deal with a lot of corruption," says Mickey. "These guys earn next to nothing and a little more money can be very tempting, it's understandable to a degree." Despite this, both Mickey and Pansiri talk of the importance of involving the authorities, saying that "building relationships" and "trust" is of the utmost importance.
Back in Baan Thatafang, Mickey and our (trusted) police escort, Captain Pauridet from the local vice and trafficking unit, slowly trudge up the hill towards the local primary school.
"We heard of a few girls being trafficked here and have since been coming back and watching it closely," says Mickey, gesturing to the various huts that dot the surrounding hills. "Normally, it's the schools [who] tell us what has been happening, as they are with the children almost every day."
Captain Pauridet explains that, usually, people are lured away with the prospect of working in the restaurant business in the cities for better money, and are then forced into other work, saying, "Often, the girls end up in the sex industry."
50 years ago, Baan Thatafang was the setting for an outpost of the Border Patrol Police, a ruthless paramilitary unit created with CIA assistance to counter any perceived Communist threat from neighboring countries. Today, the area is home to a few hundred villagers, mostly of Karen ethnicity. The majority are from the state of Karen just a few hundred meters away in Burma, and the signs around the village are still written in both Thai and Burmese. Other Karen families, however, have been calling this plot of Thailand home for centuries.
Baan Thatafang is about as isolated as they come. Located in a river valley among the mountainous Mae Sam Laep sub district of Mae Hong Son province, just getting there requires a dizzying drive through the mountains before a precarious dirt road forces us onto a boat for the final stretch.
Eventually, we make it to the primary school. The main hall of the school, I am told, was once the main office for the old BPP. Standing high on wooden stilts, flags from all the Southeast countries flicker in the light breeze.
Inside one of the classrooms, a couple of 13-year-old Karenni sisters sit anxiously. Mickey and another staff member from COSA greet them warmly and slowly get a conversation going. "How are you?" They ask the girls, who shyly mumble back.
"We're meeting their family next week. They should be coming to COSA, it's just not safe for them at their homes now," explained Mickey, not wanting to elaborate further.
The school only accommodates those up to the age of 13, and the next school is almost 40km away through the winding mountains and dirt roads. Unsurprisingly, many won't undertake such a journey.
Outin, a teacher at the school for 12 years, tells me how the work of the UN and NGOs has helped register pupils, yet the numbers of unregistered remain shockingly high. "Right now I think we can estimate that it's around 50 percent who remain unregistered," she says, her colleague nodding his approval.
Her estimate isn't far off what was found in the 2010 UNESCO survey on the Mae Hong Son ethnic minority highland peoples, which estimated that at least 40 percent of those in Mae Sam Laep have no ID card at all.
"We're very aware of the trafficking phenomenon, and the majority of kids here become vulnerable to it in different ways," says Outin. "Those that are unregistered have less choices than if they have that card." Mickey agrees wholeheartedly. "Without any sort of ID, they have zero opportunities. They won't go to high school and they will soon be tempted by those who offer them easy money from outside."
It is apposite that we meet at a school as, through his years of experience, Mickey is adamant that greater education is the key to battling trafficking. "We need to educate the older generation on what their rights are, as so many don't know," he says as we walk back to the boat. "Then we have to focus on the next generation."
"My battle is one kid at a time, one village at a time, one day at time. I may help one girl, but that girl could go on to educate and save more. That's my wish."
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