Many of the victims found in mass graves were Rohingya Muslims – a persecuted minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
It’s nearly 10pm and Umida* is cooking dinner – a simple meal of rice and meat for the 11 members of her household who have been stuck inside the house all day due to Uzbekistan’s intense summer heat.
Since emerging as an independent nation in 1991, after nearly 200 years of Russian and then Soviet rule, Uzbekistan has slowly seen some economic progress. But poverty and unemployment remain high and many Uzbeks travel abroad for work. This leaves the men, women and children vulnerable to forced labour and sex trafficking.
“My older sister works in a hospital in Moscow, so I look after her children,” Umida says. “She’s the only one who understands what happened to me in Bangkok, I have told nobody else.”
Born into a large, impoverished family, the 36-year-old says life was difficult growing up. Her mother died in 2000, leaving her father, a builder, to care for his four children. “It was hard without my mother,” she recalls, “the families in my town with two parents had more money.”
When she was 28 years old, Umida says she met a local Uzbek woman who promised her profitable work in Thailand. Umida doesn’t say whether she knew the specific nature of this work, but explains that with the hope of providing for her son who was then six years old, she agreed to travel to the Thai capital, Bangkok.
But, when she arrived in Thailand, she realised that she had been deceived. The woman who had made the arrangements destroyed all of her documents. “She was a very bad lady. She gave me no food, no money. I could only go outside to work every day,” Umida says quietly. The woman forced her to work as a prostitute on the streets of Bangkok.
Many downtown Bangkok streets are lined with women, shifting from one foot to the other, whispering to passers-by, hoping to attract their next customer. Statistics from the Thai Ministry of Public Health and from NGOs indicate that there are more than 120,000 people working in the Thai sex industry.
Some of these women are engaged in sex work because they have no other way to make money, others have been forced into the industry, and many are trafficked to Thailand from other countries.
Annie Dieselberg, CEO and founder of Nightlight International, an organisation committed to helping victims of sex trafficking and exploitation, says that the authorities do not always take the situation seriously. “Often, authorities don’t recognise the complexities of sex trafficking – that it isn’t as simple as underage women in a brothel,” Dieselberg says. “It may be an adult woman, walking the streets of Bangkok, being forced against her will to work for sex.”
Angkhana Neelapaichit, one of the seven National Human Rights Commissioners appointed by the Thai king to examine and report acts which violate human rights or “do not comply with obligations under international treaties to which Thailand is a party”, concurs. “Essentially, I can say that dealing with trafficking among sex workers, in the long run, is still challenging for Thailand and it is hard for authorities to find the real perpetrators,” she says.
After a few months, Umida attempted to escape her trafficker, anxious to return home to her son. She managed to convince one of her clients, who sympathised with her, to give her money for a return flight home.
“He gave me a lot of money, so I bought some things for my son and a plane ticket home,” Umida says. She went to the Uzbek consulate in secret and was issued with a certificate to return to Uzbekistan. When she arrived at the airport, however, a woman with a face veil approached her. She revealed herself as the trafficker. She was angry and threatening – Umida felt powerless before her. “She caught me. I didn’t know what to do. She took my passport and I had to go back to work.”
She worked for a further five months, receiving little to no money. She was made to stay in an apartment with no shower and no food, she recalls.
“I was hungry. It was only when I had a customer that I could have a meal. We would go out and drink and eat,” she says of the meetings with clients. “Then we would end up in a hotel or an apartment.”
Umida saw another chance for escape when she met Emily Chalke, cofounder of Ella’s Home, an NGO helping women exiting trafficking and exploitation.
Chalke, working at Nightlight International at the time, met Umida at a Bangkok hotel known for hosting exchanges between sex workers and their customers. Chalke explains that she met Umida after another Uzbek woman told her that Umida’s passport had been taken away.
“Everyone at the hotel knew her as the girl who was in trouble,” Chalke says.
Umida told Chalke that she wanted to escape. They agreed to meet at another hotel so she could pretend that she was going to see a client and from there they took a taxi to a safe house.
“She was angry when I met her, so angry that so much had been taken from her,” Chalke says. “She only had the clothes on her back and a small notebook where she had written the amounts paid to her trafficker, more than $10,000 by that time.”
Nightlight International made the arrangements for her return home and reported the case to the police.
The trafficker was arrested, Chalke says. It was the first arrest police had made of an Uzbek trafficker in four years. But this required Umida to make a statement. She was terrified. “I had to go to court once. I was so scared to see the bad lady,” she says, adding: [But] the people around me helped me and I was able to do it.”
Her trafficker, however, was freed after paying bail and disappeared, never to be prosecuted.
The trial on July 19 in which Bangkok’s Criminal Court Division for Human Trafficking convicted 62 people on charges of human trafficking, including an army general, was Thailand’s largest human trafficking trial and an unprecedented achievement for the Thai military government.
Dieselberg says the current government is accomplishing more than its elected predecessors. “When we began helping victims of sex trafficking in 2010, justice honestly seemed out of reach.”
Still, she thinks that more needs to be done. “Though the military is absolutely doing more to address trafficking, it is primarily addressing labour trafficking, the seafood industry, and minors.”
In many cases, the sex trafficking rings are small, comprising one to five women, whereas labour traffickers often exploit more victims at one time. “Many large anti-trafficking organisations lack the financial and human resources to focus on smaller cases, so there is a greater value in targeting a greater number of people in one place,” Dieselberg explains.
Neelapaichit, the Human Rights commissioner, agrees. “[Dealing with sex trafficking] is very challenging for Thailand. Thailand tries to show they have policies to fight against trafficking, but there are still many traffickers that are free and have no criminal offences.”
There can also be improvements in providing safety and services for the victims, Dieselberg feels. “At the moment, it is still not considered beneficial to a victim to identify the trafficker and take them to court … she would rather return home and be safe.”
Out of the approximately 100 victims of sex trafficking her organisation has helped, only three initially agreed to testify. This led to two court cases but neither resulted in a prosecution.
Dieselberg says she hopes the immediate effect of the high-profile case will be a warning to traffickers, but adds that they always look for other ways to continue their trade. “It sends a message, but a law only makes a difference if it is enforced continuously.”
Neelapaichit agrees, “Thailand must continue to show that it really wants to fight human trafficking and will not allow perpetrators to walk freely, even if the traffickers are from Thailand or are officers or security forces.”
It took three months for the police to gather the information they required in Umida’s case and for her to receive her travel documents, but she finally returned to Uzbekistan and to her son on October 20, 2009.
Her son is now 14 years old. “I am home with him and he goes to school every day,” she says proudly. She helps her younger sister bake bread and care for the family. She is determined to express how much her life has improved since Bangkok.
“After I returned to my son, I found us a place to live. I don’t want to remember the bad times. I don’t think about them. I only remember the kind people that helped me and the friends I made. Life is so good for me now, now I am happy.”
*Name changed to protect identity