Ever wondered who made your pizza at that restaurant last night? Who works on that farm you always buy produce from at the Saturday morning market? Bet you didn’t think the answer was a child in forced labor. Human trafficking in Southeast Asia has children shipped for labor and prostitution services to Thailand, Burma, and even San Francisco.
“There is human trafficking happening in our backyard. There are restaurants, farms, and brothels right here in San Francisco using forced labor,” said David Batstone, business professor, and president and co-founder of Not For Sale, a California nonprofit working to end human trafficking and modern day slavery. Batstone first encountered human trafficking at his favorite local restaurant, which was serving as a center for a group of people that was placing 500 teens from India under forced labor. He hosted a seminar to raise awareness about illegal prostitution and forced labor in southeast Asia last Tuesday. In 2006, Batstone took a year’s sabbatical to further explore the exploitations in Thailand.
“These modern day slaves are stateless,” explained Batstone. A stateless person is one who does not belong to any nation — a person born on the border. Batstone, however, perceived the term as a euphemism. “Statelessness means you’re not treated with dignity. You are not treated as a human being,” he said.
Batstone brought in Thai activist Kru Nam, who rescued over 500 stateless children from a life of prostitution and slavery after seeing a group of children behind a fence along the border of Thailand and Burma. “That was the first time I realized these kids needed help,” said Nam. “I brought them snacks on the other side of the fence and as they were running down, one big man slapped a child down and asked, “Why would you want to help these kids,” she recalled.
Batstone pointed out that she hasn’t received all the attention she deserves. According to him, Nam’s altruistic efforts have been greatly resisted. For example, when Nam tried to send one of the rescued children to an elementary school in Thailand, the principal would not consider accepting him without valid identification. Nam said she saw a brochure for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, that read, “Every child has the right to education,” and went back to show the school. “I told them, if you don’t accept him, it’s okay, but I’m just going to have to have a word with Mr. UNICEF. They let [the student] in. I had never even heard of UNICEF before,” she said, laughing.
Kru Nam, who has been jailed for her attempts at helping the children, is full of such inventive solutions. According to Batstone, she has had over 150 children under her care at one time. To help accommodate the kids, she has slept in graveyards and begged monks for food. But Nam’s primary focus is to make the children feel loved.
“They have no nationality. They are on the border of two countries and both say, ‘No they are not ours, and we don’t want to take care of them.’ How can you have any sense of worth when you grow up like that?” she asked.
David Galdamez, a politics student, commented on Nam’s efforts: “It’s pretty sad what’s going on. There’s not much help over there and the struggle [Kru Nam] is going through just by herself is depressing.” The children need more than food and water — they need change. Nam suggested government reform as a way to combat human trafficking. “Human traffickers don’t wear a uniform. They are hard to persecute and it’s easy to get out of jail if you are rich in Thailand,” she said. “We want [the children] to understand their rights as human beings. There are real people behind these numbers,” she concluded.
Student Cassidy Miller said Nam’s story created a palpable visual for the overseas injustice. “I’ve always been interested in human trafficking, but Kru Nam really put a face behind the efforts over there. It’s inspiring,” said the international studies junior.
Nam is currently part of the movement to stop human trafficking in Thailand. In 2010, Thailand’s prime minister at the time, Abhisit Vejjajiva, helped develop the second six-year plan to push the country’s efforts to prevent trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of State. Nam will continue her efforts to help stateless children when she returns to Thailand.
If Kru Nam’s story has inspired you to learn more and help out with the situation in Thailand, check out www.nationalityforall.org. The website promotes information on human trafficking and statelessness, and helps support advocacy groups and policy reforms abroad.