Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

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Part 1: Confronting the Child Sex Trade in Southeast Asia

Thailand has long been a popular tourist destination for Westerners charmed by the country’s culture and cuisine, its storied beaches, and its ever-present markets. Unfortunately, a certain type of visitor is also drawn to the well-established sex trade, which too often victimizes children.

The dark side of Thailand’s tourism industry plays out nightly in Bangkok’s tawdry red-light districts, in Chiang Mai’s after-hours club scene, and along the neon-infested Walking Street in the coastal town of Pattaya. In these and other places less obvious, trafficked children can be bought and sold, reduced to the basest form of commerce.

Increasingly, the Thai government—with the assistance of the FBI and other partners—has taken significant steps to address the sexual exploitation of children and to focus more attention on victims, whose interests in the past have sometimes been overlooked.

“The Thai government has adopted a new urgency when it comes to the issues of child exploitation, sexual abuse, and trafficking in persons,” noted U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies. “This new urgency is very welcome.”

Davies explained that trafficking is a “huge problem in Thailand, as it is in many countries.” But the Thai government has shown a “new eagerness” to address the problem and to seek help from the United States, the ambassador said. “That is terrific, because we’ve got the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department’s expertise and resources that we can bring to bear.”

Among recent promising developments:

* The Thai government opened a Child Advocacy Center in Chiang Mai, the first of its kind anywhere in Southeast Asia. Based on U.S. models, the center provides shelter and resources for young victims of sexual exploitation and other abuse, and allows specially trained experts to conduct interviews with the children in a friendly, stress-free environment.
* A law enacted in 2015 has made it easier to arrest and prosecute pedophiles and other sexual abusers who are in possession of child pornography.
* The establishment of the Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (TICAC). Based on a U.S. model, the task force combats sexual exploitation facilitated online through shared intelligence. Thai law enforcement officials have recently begun working directly with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in the U.S. to share real-time information.
* Many of these efforts to stem the tide of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation in Thailand have occurred because of the continuing collaboration between Thai law enforcement and U.S. agencies working in Southeast Asia—notably the FBI, HSI, and the U.S. Department of State.

With training and support from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, the Royal Thai Police is in the process of establishing a victim assistance program—similar to the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance—in which trained police specialists work on behalf of child victims.

"American law enforcement has been long-time good friends to the Royal Thai Police,” said Gen. Tamesak Wicharaya, an assistant commissioner on the police force who oversees the TICAC and has been instrumental in moving the victim assistance program forward. “Trafficking is a serious crime,” he said. “It is a crime against human dignity, but when they do this to our children, it is even worse.” The general explained that there is a “clear national agenda” in Thailand to address these issues and to assist young people who are sexually exploited by Thai citizens as well as foreign visitors.

“We see a large number of travelers from the U.S. and other countries coming here to commit acts against children,” said Special Agent John Schachnovsky, head of the FBI’s legal attaché office in Bangkok. “To travel from the U.S. to any foreign country and engage in sex with a minor is against the law.”

Gen. Tamasak Wicharaya oversees the Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Schachnovsky pointed out that providing assistance to victims—as the FBI has formally done since 2001—is not only the right thing to do morally, it helps law enforcement more effectively investigate cases. That, in turn, increases the likelihood abusers will be jailed and will cease to pose a threat to the community.

“For victims of crime to know that the police force is on their side from day one is very important,” he said. “The world knows that the sexual exploitation of children is a problem. There aren’t two sides to the issue of taking care of victims. This is a situation where we are able to do something that is 100 percent right.”

The more child sex tourists and traffickers who are sent to Thai prisons or returned to the U.S. for prosecution, said Gen. Tamesak, the more the word goes out that Thailand is no longer a playground for pedophiles and other sexual predators. “We hope that we can send a clear message to those people that Thailand is not a safe haven for them. We will work harder to stop these kinds of people.”

Ambassador Davies agreed. Given the changes taking place from the top down in the Thai government and in law enforcement, he said, “I think people are making a big mistake if they think they can come here and operate freely when it comes to these types of heinous crimes.”

Child Sex Tourism

Child sex tourism describes the act of traveling to another country to engage in illegal sexual conduct with children. It’s a growing problem thanks to the ease of international travel and the free exchange of information online regarding how and where to find child victims overseas. Children from poor and developing countries are often seen as easy targets by American sexual predators.

The U.S. Department of State estimates that more than a million children are exploited each year in the global commercial sex trade—and that exploitation is illegal. American citizens who engage in sexual contact with a minor overseas are subject to prosecution under various U.S. laws, and those laws were strengthened in 2003 with the passage of the federal PROTECT Act. The law enhances the ability to prosecute and incarcerate individuals who victimize children and removes any statute of limitation on crimes involving the abduction or physical or sexual abuse of a child.

The FBI’s Child Sex Tourism Initiative was established in 2008 to address these crimes and to provide child victims with support and services. Working with state and federal partners, along with foreign law enforcement and non-governmental organizations, the Bureau is actively engaged in investigating and prosecuting American child sex tourists anywhere in the world.

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Part 2: A New Emphasis on Helping Child Victims

Gnerals from the Royal Thai Police—among the highest-ranking officers in the 230,000-member national force—gathered recently in Bangkok for FBI training regarding child victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. The message they received was simple but powerful: Helping victims is the right thing to do, and it makes it easier to put their abusers behind bars.

Child victims who receive support and assistance from law enforcement are more likely to provide better information to investigators and more willing to make the difficult decision to testify against their attackers in court, increasing the likelihood of successful prosecutions.

The Thai police leaders were among more than 100 members of law enforcement and non-governmental organizations who received training from experts with the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance. The Thai government requested the FBI’s guidance and support to establish its own victim assistance program.

“The idea of victim assistance is new to the Royal Thai Police,” said Major Gen. Monthon Ngernwattanam, who participated in the training, “but it’s very helpful. This program will show the international community that we can try our best to fight against human trafficking.”

For the FBI, a victim-centered approach in crimes against children cases is standard practice. Victim specialists are on hand during investigations to assist young victims in a variety of ways. Trafficked children might only have the clothes on their backs when recovered by law enforcement. They might live on the street and need shelter, or their parents or caregivers might be their abusers. Victims often need referrals for medical or mental health treatment. They also need an advocate for court proceedings. Just as important, they need adults in their lives who are trustworthy. Victim specialists can provide all those things—and that frees investigators to focus on gathering evidence and preparing cases for prosecution.

“This approach is very important in the U.S.,” said Special Agent Ernie Weyand, the assistant legal attaché in the FBI’s Bangkok office, “but it’s a concept that’s relatively new.” As little as two decades ago, he explained, U.S. investigators “sometimes ran past the victim to work the case, and often the victim was left in the wake.” It was not until the FBI established its victim assistance program in 2001 that things began to change. Today, dedicated victim specialists are assigned to every FBI field office around the country. That is the model the Royal Thai Police seeks to emulate.

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Members of the Royal Thai Police along with personnel from non-governmental organizations gathered in Thailand last April for FBI training focused on human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children, and how to better assist victims of these crimes. Such a victim-centered approach has become "very important in the U.S.,” said Special Agent Ernie Weyand (above), the assistant legal attaché in the FBI’s Bangkok office who helped organize the training. Specialists from the FBI's Office for Victim Assistance conducted the training and are helping Thai authorities establish their own victim assistance program.

“Ultimately that approach made for better cases and made our victims more whole,” Weyand said. “In the end, victims were better—they were better witnesses and they were more complete people. They weren’t harmed in the process of being actively involved in an investigation.”

While the Thai police force works to establish its own victim assistance program, the Child Advocacy Center (CAC)—the country’s first such facility—is already putting the victim-centered concept to work. Located in Chiang Mai, a popular tourist destination in Northern Thailand, the recently opened center offers shelter and resources to victims of child sexual exploitation and other abuses, some as young as 12 years old.

The director of the CAC, who goes by the name Boom, said the center aims to be a “one-stop shop” for victims. “Many of the children here come from poor families,” she said. “They do not have access to counselors or lawyers. We are here to make sure they get all that, along with after-school programs and basics such as food. We look after them.”

At the same time, the children can establish relationships of trust with investigators in a friendly, stress-free atmosphere away from the sometimes intimidating environment of a police station. “The police are here working with the victims from the beginning,” Boom said.

The center also has an FBI-funded interview room with state-of-the-art recording equipment where trained child forensic interviewers can conduct victim interviews—often a critical part of a sexual exploitation investigation. The recording equipment allows investigators and others such as social workers and prosecutors to view the interview in a separate room as it occurs. That way, young abuse victims are not re-traumatized by having to tell their story multiple times.

“The CAC offers help and hope,” Boom said. “The abuse happened, but this place makes sure the kids are not walking alone.”

It is hoped that the CAC will serve as a model for more child advocacy centers in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Failing to provide such support and services, said a veteran police detective in Chiang Mai who works with the CAC, will only perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

Without intervention, he explained, young victims may well grow up to become abusers themselves. And abusers can easily become traffickers. “We have experienced many cases of that,” he said. “This is the situation that we have seen.”

With regard to trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children, Weyand noted, “We are all invested in improving what’s happening in Thailand. As the victim-centered approach takes hold and as victims gain more trust and confidence in the system, I think you are going to see, like we did in the U.S., a tremendous response and a greater number of these cases being investigated and prosecuted, and victims really feeling like they received justice through the process.”

Training for the Future

The three-day Victim Support Services Conference presented in Bangkok this spring to top Royal Thai Police officers—and other victim-assistance training conducted in Thailand—was provided by the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance and funded through an arm of the U.S. Department of State called the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).

INL funds a variety of training programs for prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials around the world. “In Thailand,” said Rick Snelsire, INL director at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, “most of our programs recently have been focused on trafficking in persons—both labor and sex trafficking—which is a big issue here.”

“The Thai government is engaged on this issue,” Snelsire said, explaining that government officials approached embassy and FBI personnel about establishing a victim assistance organization similar to the Bureau’s successful program.

The training conducted in April 2016 represents the first step in the overall plan. Phase one provided senior Thai police leaders with an overview of what a victim assistance program entails and how it could be implemented throughout the police force.

“The next phase will actually be to meet and work with the officers who would be the presumptive victim-witness coordinators at the individual Royal Thai Police stations,” Snelsire said, “and to have FBI personnel on-site to share best practices on how this model works.”

If the program is successful, he added, it could be expanded to include victim-witness coordinators in Thailand’s prosecutors’ offices as well as the police department—as is the U.S. practice.

“We’re really excited,” Snelsire said, “because we are doing something new and innovative that hasn’t been done in this part of the world. We look at Thailand as a kind of a test case for this model. If it works, perhaps we can expand it to other countries in the region—because this problem is not unique to Thailand.”

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