Bangkok, Thailand – Before lockdowns, curfews, and safe distancing, Thodsapone Kitta would go door to door, visiting low-income families in Thailand’s northern Nan province, a poor, mountainous region home to hill tribes and rural farmers where people are vulnerable to trafficking.
For Thodsapone, a member of The Freedom Story, an organisation working to curb child trafficking, the best way to combat exploitation is through preventive practice: offering assistance to vulnerable children through education, emotional support, teaching life skills and, most importantly, mentorship.
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As the son of rural corn farmers, Thodsapone had little such support. Despite the odds, he was the first in his village to go to university. Preferring not to go into detail, he tells of working his way through school in the northern city of Chiang Rai, becoming even more determined to pursue a career in social work.
“One of my main motivators is to help the community and to help kids,” Thodsapone told Al Jazeera. “I want to be able to help them find good opportunities.”
Thailand went into lockdown on March 18, declaring a state of emergency that forced factories and businesses to close. Tens of millions of jobs could be lost – and Thailand’s central bank has forecast that the economy will contract 5.3 percent this year.
The government has responded by offering monthly cash payments of 5,000 baht ($150) to the country’s poor, but experts worry traffickers will exploit the situation in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to prey on the world’s most vulnerable as they wrestle with increasingly difficult decisions.
“During the pandemic, we are concerned and watching the economic impact on vulnerable communities,” said Amie Gosselin, from 10 Thousand Windows, an organisation that offers economic empowerment programmes for survivors of violence and exploitation, particularly in the Philippines.
“Men and women will likely find themselves in exploitive situations as they’re desperately looking for jobs. So, the first level response is to stop the bleeding,” she continued.
Southeast Asia has long had a problem with human trafficking. Every year, The US government releases an annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which assesses the efforts of each country to combat human trafficking. Most Southeast Asian countries fall into either Tier 2 or Tier 3 watchlists, the two most concerning categories.
Other experts told Al Jazeera that the economic toll brought on by the pandemic could leave people at risk of forced labour in factories, in the fields or at sea, especially when there is little in the way of state support.
“There’s a couple things we’re seeing, first a top-down economic impact creating push and pull factors for the most vulnerable,” said Helen Sworn, founder and director of the Cambodia-based anti-human trafficking organisation, Chab Dai.
Sworn said more than 100,000 jobs had been lost in Cambodia’s garment sector alone, and that the government had provided little assistance for those affected.
And it does not only affect people in the cities. Many of the workers send money to families back in the villages. Without an income, people are forced to take out loans.
“Families have to borrow money, often with very high levels of interest. They don’t have any collateral. So sometimes this collateral ends up being their daughters,” she said.
“After the global financial crisis, we saw a similar number lose their jobs, and a lot of those workers end up going into the entertainment industry to send money back home.”
In Thailand, the pandemic has already pushed the country’s poor to desperation.
Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director at The Freedom Story, says teenagers from poorer communities feel pressured to help provide for their families. But because of a lack of jobs brought on by the pandemic, they are vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers looking to take advantage of their desperation.
“The businesses that will be able to come back quickly will likely be among those related to human trafficking, like in the commercial sex sector,” he said, adding that young people could be lured into the trafficking rings because there are so few opportunities elsewhere.
It is not only as a result of the lack of work that lockdowns are creating vulnerabilities.
School closures have left children – spending most of their time isolated at home and online – at risk of internet predators able to contact them via social media platforms.
“As they’re at home longer on their own, cut off from their communities, they could be more open to talk to people they don’t know online as they become more isolated,” said Lucy McCray, Veerawit’s colleague.
Struggle will outlast outbreak
In Nan, the heightened risk is not an abstract idea.
Low-income families have been pushed to the edge, and families are struggling to provide for their children. Teenagers are becoming more isolated than ever, says Thodsapone.
“They’re more at risk than other kids because they have lower opportunities for education,” he said. “Many have family problems; some parents work in other provinces; some kids don’t have any guardians or live in children’s homes. Sometimes they just don’t have anyone to talk to – but we try to let them feel like they have someone they can count on.”
Thodsapone told Al Jazeera that, a week prior to his interview, a 15-year-old girl he knew had resorted to engaging in chats and livestreaming herself in order to make money. She had been under pressure to find a way to provide for her family and lacked any other options.
McCray notes that all sexual activity performed by minors is considered exploitation as children are not considered to have the ability to “consent” to sex acts.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says human trafficking occurs in a complex web of social, economic, and sometimes cultural factors that result in the entrapment of individuals. Modern-day slavery encompasses sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, forced labour, bonded labour or debt bondage, domestic servitude, forced child labour, unlawful recruitment, and use of child soldiers.
The US government estimates that as many as 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders annually. The UN estimates the total market value of illicit human trafficking is roughly $32bn.
For Thodsapone, his work is simply about protecting the children, and it is a struggle that will not go away even if a coronavirus vaccine is found.
“We should give kids the space and time to share their thoughts,” he said. “Even for those who are poor and are in difficult situations, they can still bring a lot of good into the society.”