Tag Archives: trafficking

Land of Smiles: exploring Thailand’s anti-trafficking movement

When people hear the word “trafficking” they often think of young women held in bondage, forced into prostitution against their will. This is certainly a circumstance that takes place around the globe—one that is real, and very serious. But often sex workers, many of whom are migrants seeking a better life in a country far from home, know what they are getting into when they enter the trade. The real problem they face comes from the industry working to “save” them.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), funded by private donors and the U.S. State Department, are working hard to fight trafficking. But the problem is that many do this by trying to eradicate prostitution and curb migration—resulting in policies that are harmful, rather than helpful, to women.

Recently, important revelations have come out about the anti-trafficking movement’s problematic policies. Last month, Newsweek broke a story about the Somaly Mam Foundation, a famous Cambodian-based anti-trafficking NGO that has been fabricating stories of sex trafficking to appeal to their donor base. The story was shocking, but to those who understand the contested terrain of the anti-trafficking movement, it wasn’t surprising.

The question of what role NGOs should play in “rescuing” women from the sex industry has been debated by feminists for years. Only now, these debates are heating up because the voices of migrant women, supposed trafficking “victims,” are finally coming out.

It was these women’s voices—voices that have been silenced and overshadowed by a movement supposedly intended to “help” them—that inspired me to travel to Thailand to research the issue of sex trafficking. I wanted to learn about the issue not only from the perspective of advocates working to stop it, but from migrant women themselves—women whose experiences can offer tremendous insight into creating policies that will better serve their needs.

Over the course of three years I conducted over 50 interviews with NGO employees, female migrants, sex workers rights advocates, members of government and others as part of my PhD at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The discoveries I made would ultimately lead me to write and compose Land of Smiles, a musical whose goal was to turn the narrative about trafficking on its head.

Land of Smiles is a fictional, full-length musical about the trafficking of women in Thailand, which dramatises what I call the “dominant trafficking narrative”: a story told by Western anti-trafficking advocates that reinforces our moralisms about intimacy, rights, women’s proper roles, as well as ideas about individualism, and a modernisation framework that is at the root of development thinking.

Taking issue with the assumptions Western advocates often make about women in the developing world, I created a story that I hoped would expose the flaws of these assumptions, and raise awareness about the problematic policies being enacted by members of the movement.

The story focuses on the aftermath of a brothel raid in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. Lipoh, a young Kachin (ethnic minority) migrant from Burma, seems to be underage, making her an automatic “trafficking victim” in the eyes of the law. Emma Gable, an NGO case worker from Cedar Falls, Indiana, is sent to prepare Lipoh to be a witness in a trial to prosecute her trafficker. Emma must convince Lipoh to be the person everyone sees: a trafficking victim. But Lipoh is unwilling to cooperate. She insists that she is eighteen and was working in the brothel willingly. Not only that—she wants to go back.

What transpires is a journey into Thailand’s anti-trafficking movement—a world burdened with politics, morality and the rhetoric of human rights. Through hearing Lipoh’s story, Emma discovers that grave atrocities are being committed against the Kachin people of Burma. But these atrocities are overshadowed by a narrative about trafficking that serves the needs of the anti-trafficking movement, rather than the women it is trying to help.

In writing Land of Smiles I wanted to problematise the discourse on trafficking that circulates among feminist scholars studying trafficking. I sought to unpack the Western “gaze” that views female migrant sex workers as “victims,” and turn this trope around by shedding light on that gaze itself—the lens through which Western advocates see the issue of trafficking. I wanted to expose that the trafficking of women in Thailand is not an isolated human rights abuse that takes place in a separate sphere from Western behavior, structures and thoughts. Rather, the West is complicit in this human rights drama because of the way we objectify third world “victims.”

Land of Smiles is intended to be a platform for dialogue. As the audience makes their way out of the theatre, I hope the show will have caused questioning among those who have the power to change anti-trafficking policy and adopt a more holistic approach to implementing solutions.

Land of Smiles runs from July 31 to 25 August at Assembly, George Square, Edinburgh. For more details/booking visit: http://www.assemblyfestival.com or call 0131 623 3030

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#16Days: A Tiny Protest

‘A Tiny Protest’, launched by women’s charity Eaves earlier this month, calls for major reforms to protect victims of trafficking in the UK.

Globally, 2.4 million people are estimated to be trafficked each year, making it the world’s second most profitable crime after the illegal drugs trade. According to official statistics, just over 2,000 victims were found in the UK last year, but experts believe the numbers may in fact be much higher.

The UK Government is currently drafting a Modern Slavery Bill, due to come into force next year. Eaves, a charity offering specialist support to female victims of trafficking, supports the Bill but is calling on the Government to use it as an opportunity to improve the treatment of victims.

Dorcas Erskine who runs the Eaves’ anti-trafficking programme the Poppy Project, said: “A lot of the women we have supported often face two nightmares for which it seems they will never wake – the brutality of the slavery-like conditions their traffickers have imposed on them; and then, post-escape, getting officials to believe them or even worse, finding themselves imprisoned for crimes their traffickers forced them to commit. ”

‘A Tiny Protest’ asks supporters simply to tweet, using the hashtag #tinyprotest, asking No. 10 to implement one of seven key principles about protecting victims of trafficking in the UK. For a tiny donation of £3, supporters can also add their own Tiny Protester to the campaign website, with all proceeds going towards Eaves’ Poppy Project work supporting trafficking victims.

The seven key principles Eaves would like to see incorporated into the Bill are:

1. Victims should be identified and treated in the same way wherever they are from in the world.

2. Victims should not be imprisoned or detained as a result of crimes their traffickers forced them to commit.

3. Victims should have at least 90 days access to legal, health and resettlement services.

4. Where victims choose to return home; steps should be taken to keep them safe and help given to rebuild their lives.

5. Victims have a right to compensation which should include funds from the confiscated assets of traffickers.

6. Victims have a right to justice and should expect crimes against them to be investigated whenever they took place.

7. The government proposed Anti-Slavery Commissioner should be politically independent and have the authority to hold officials to account.

Skin-plus-tiny-protesterThe campaign is supported by Skin from band Skunk Anansie, pictured with her tiny protester, as well as Stephen Fry, Alan Carr, Jo Brand, Stephen Merchant, Samantha Womack and Tim Minchin. Eaves launched their Tiny Protest at the House of Commons on Wednesday 13 November, where they put across the campaign’s key principles to Home Secretary Theresa May.

The social media campaign runs alongside real-world Tiny Protest events, where tiny polyresin protesters will assemble at landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Speakers Corner.

Laura Bassett, fundraising manager at Eaves, said: “Many people won’t realise the scale of human trafficking in the UK. This campaign offers people the chance to do something seemingly tiny to help ensure the protection of victims. Added together, these tiny actions could amount to a huge impact on the lives of victims of trafficking.”

Find out more and get involved yourself at www.tinyprotest.org

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