I spent the summer between my second and third years at SUNY Buffalo Law in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Supported by the BHRC Summer Human Rights Fellowship, I secured a position at a local Thai NGO TRAFCORD that coordinated the anti-human trafficking network in the northwest region of the country.
My primary job was to research external funding opportunities and write grants for them because their funding from the U.S. State Department was of indefinite duration. To do so, I had to familiarize myself with the entirety of the operations: police assistance and training; "raids"; victim pretrial counseling; educational outreach in poor communities; post-trial shelter services and repatriation. I also had to get myself up to speed on the recent 2008 anti-human trafficking legislation which brought Thailand in line – on paper at least – with its international obligations under the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The capstone of my summer was developing a project that would expand the legal capacity of the anti-human trafficking effort in the region by giving prosecutors training in a victim-centered approach. Many of the protections afforded victims in the new legislation were not being realized due to lack of knowledge of the law.
I got to know my Thai colleagues very well, and they took me with them to do outreach with ethnic hill tribe populations, poor urban youths and Burmese immigrants. In attending a national conference on human trafficking held in Pattaya, I was able to help TRAFCORD in outreach to English-speaking tourists during our work in the street. Many tourists come to Thailand for its sex industry, and our job was to educate the public on the realities of trafficking.
The most gratifying experience I had was toward the end of the summer, when I was speaking basic Thai. We visited a government shelter for girls – many of whom had been survivors of trafficking but who did not have Thai citizenship. Unlike in the United States, where we provide the option of legal status to victims of trafficking who assist in the prosecution of their traffickers, in Thailand those without legal immigration status must be returned to their country. I was able to speak in Thai to a 16-year-old who had been trafficked from Burma at the age of 14 and had been working in a brothel in Chiang Rai until she was rescued by a police raid. The Thai government was negotiating her return to Burma, making sure she would be returned to a safe home environment where hopefully she would not be lured or sold back into the sex trade. Human trafficking is a global problem that must be addressed at every level of government and by civil society.
I am fortunate to have been afforded such a rich, cross-cutting experience in which I observed that international human rights standards change the lives of victims on the ground.