Local authorities and American Evangelicals are currently working on reduction of sex trafficking in Thailand. But, some sex industry workers say they haven't been trafficked, and are calling for a stop to the measures.
Twenty-eight-year-old Mai has been a sex worker in Chiang Mai for a decade now. Originally from Burma, she previously worked as a domestic helper, a dishwasher, and baker but says none of these jobs allowed her to make as much money as she does now.
"There are good and bad things to any job," she says. "When I came to do sex work, I realized this is a job that gives me enough income to really look after my family and move ahead in life. I was not tricked into it and I don’t see myself as a victim."
Mai says she was introduced to prostitution by a friend who had been pulled out of prostitution in a police raid at a brothel two years ago. Shortly thereafter the woman involved had returned to work as a sex worker though.
Part of a bigger problem
The UN estimates that around 2.5 million people globally are victims of trafficking. Recently, a US government report highlighted Thailand as having an increasing number of victims of human trafficking. As a response, the Thai government have stepped up their focus on anti-human trafficking issues, so much so that last year, the Royal Thai Police ordered all police units to spend at least 10 days each month doing anti-trafficking work.
But while Thai law enforcement authorities are trying to meet this quota by pulling sex workers out of brothels, there is little evidence to suggest that the sex workers they are rescuing are actually victims of trafficking. In 2012, the Thai Royal police investigated three times as many cases of sex trafficking as the year before but that lead to only a couple of arrests.
Although prostitution is illegal in Thailand, it is practised openly and is even partly regulated. Earlier this year, the largest organisation for sex workers in Thailand called for a stop to the "rescues" of prostitutes in Bangkok, arguing that many of them have not been trafficked, but choose to work in a profession which pays them more than the bare minimum.
"It’s not up to me to say whether what the sex workers are doing is right or wrong," says Sam Derbali, a criminologist at Mahidol University in Bangkok. "But, I think there are other places to focus on, like children, or people who are exploited in the factories who cannot leave or those on the fishing boats. No-one knows what happens to them."
Evangelical groups also involved
Still, many American evangelical groups in Thailand are focusing on the sex trade problem, offering women an alternative to sex work. Critics argue that these groups fail to address the root causes of sex work, including poverty and a lack of education, and are too quick to assume that none of the women have a choice. They also suggest that evangelical groups are largely motivated by the prospect that reformed sex workers will convert to Christianity.
Twenty-four-year-old Mint is one of these women. She fell into sex work in the same way as many other working-class women in Thailand. First, she got a job at a factory in Bangkok. Then, a co-worker suggested she also work nights at a bar, a typical entry into prostitution.
Mint says she wasn’t forced into sex work – in three days she could earn as much as what she would earn in a month at the factory. But many clients were violent, and Mint nearly died from such an attack a couple of years ago.
"I felt I had hit rock bottom because I couldn’t do anything. I worked as a prostitute, I couldn’t go to the police and ask them to arrest that guy," she remembers. "I had no money to send to my grandmother, no money to pay for rent. It was the worst time of my life."
Two sides of the story
A friend suggested Mint seek help at a local church run by American missionaries. That moment marked an exit from prostitution, and the beginning of her belief in God. Mint now works at NightLight International, a Christian organization that employs former sex workers to make jewellery, which is sold online.
"Now I can do good work that will not hurt my body; I don’t have to fight all the time," says Mint. She’s making a living wage in Thailand – about 250 dollars (180 euros) a month – though that's not nearly as much as she earned before.
Annie Dieselberg, the founder of NightLight, says there is a huge need to provide other job opportunities to women in the sex trade. Every other week, headlines announce a new raid at a Bangkok bar employing scores of underage girls. Dieselberg believes that many of these girls have been coerced into doing sex work.
However, people employed in sex work in the country have criticised the way both the Thai authorities and American evangelical organisations are approaching the issue. The American lead anti-sex trafficking agenda, they say, is actually endangering the wellbeing of poor migrant sex workers and their families.