Thai Hill Tribe Children at Risk

Human trafficking business has been flourishing in Thailand but a particularly vulnerable group facing the risk of being trafficked often stays hidden from the limelight.
Photo by Jana Nguyenová

Tawee Donchai, Thailand Director of the The Sold Project, a non-governmental organisation focusing on prevention of human trafficking, shares his experiences from working with hill tribe children, who come from ethnic minorities which mostly live in the Northern and Western part of Thailand; and explains why they are at greater risk to be trafficked than others.

The Sold Project runs a few projects which target children most vulnerable to human trafficking and provides them not only with information and awareness but also with scholarships and opportunities to pursue further education or career. Through education, elimination of poverty and targeting the risk factors his NGO helps to prevent exploitation of these children.

Human trafficking is a crime defined in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and its Protocol to Prevent, Surpress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. Simply put, it is the trade with humans for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labour or sexual exploitation for commercial purposes. Such purposes can be accomplished by means such as forced marriage, removal of organs or prostitution. Popular sex tourism in Thailand only helps the boom of this business.

According to, Thailand is a destination country for this business and groups of migrants, ethnic minorities or stateless people are at much greater risk to be trafficked then actual Thai nationals.“Thailand is diverse when it comes to hill tribes but we mostly work with Akha, Lisu and Lahu ethnic minorities” says Donchai. “There are actual factors that make them extremely vulnerable to be trafficked” he adds.

Ph: Jana Nguyenová

Photo by Jana Nguyenová

Donchai feels that broken family ties have great impact on children. “Children from hill tribes mostly live in remote rural or mountain areas and therefore they leave their homes at age of 7 to pursue further education in larger towns where they live in boarding schools and they rarely get to see their families.” According to Donchai this might have a negative effect on the child´s maturing as he loses parental guidance from such early age. “At around the age of 15 these children start living on their own, they either continue with education or start working. At this stage they are still not mature enough to make safe and right decisions for themselves and they can easily be lured onto wrong paths.”

Education is one of the reasons why these children leave their homes at such early age but it is also an aspect that should be treated carefully. “Promoting education is great, but it has to be done in the right way. Many families here in Thailand compete with each other in terms of how well their child is doing at school, it is a bit selfish culture to be honest. As their focus is only on studying, they tend to “forget” to teach their children essential life skills – simple things such as cooking or farming. Not being equipped with such skills prevents them from getting jobs in the future and makes them more likely to seek within illicit jobs” explains Donchai.

However, Donchai said the most serious problem remains statelessness. “Children of hill tribe people here are mostly born in their homes in remote areas where no evidence such as birth certificate is kept. The truth is many of these parents do not speak Thai, are uneducated, live day by day and hence do not realise that the lack of documentation can have fatal consequences, for instance it  prevents them to receive Thai citizenship. Without that they do not belong anywhere.” Statelessness limits hill tribe people in terms of travelling across the country to seek job opportunities in larger cities which leaves them in even greater financial need. Donchai elaborates that helping these people to retrospectively gain their citizenship is difficult and very challenging and it severely affects their children. “Even when well-educated these undocumented children would not be able to have guaranteed jobs in the future. Knowing this, they lose hope, tend to drop out of schools and due to their bad financial situation they take any job – and are very likely to end up in the prostitution business” says Donchai.

Local family home. Photo by Jana Nguyenová

Local family home. Photo by Jana Nguyenová

Besides these factors, young hill tribe children get to witness human trafficking in their everyday life. Donchai says that apart from traffickers coming from outside there are the local ones who are based in the community. “Even at the moment, there is a trafficker in a community I work with. She targets hill tribe children who, due to broken family bonds, extreme poverty, lack of documentation and similar reasons, are problematic or in a financial need, she introduces them to material possessions and offers them quickly earned money. The child might even have an idea of what the job consist in, but she succeeds to lure them in it, even though it might take months.” Donchai believes that traffickers succeed in this atrocious crime because they take advantage both of the hopelessness of this kids’ situation and their immaturity.

Donchai admits that it is the combination of all these factors that makes these children extremely vulnerable to trafficking. The truth is that throughout his work with the Sold Project, he has witnessed a lot of individual stories and managed to change a number of destinies. Having a good educational background himself, he knew education is the only way to help these children. Becoming a part of Thai communities he gained trust among them. Thus, he is involved in the realization of Sold Project mission to not only educate children but also to warn them on the possible threats. Even though through his work many destinies are being changed for the better, many children’s life are at risk and this issue must be tackled at the soonest.

Human Rights
Jana Nguyenova

Jana is a Master student in International Security & Law at the University of Southern Denmark, where she specialises on sexual violence in conflict, gender justice on international level, gender equality and human rights. After completing her internship with the UN Women office in China, she is now researching on sexual violence in the context of ICC case law. Apart from that she is passionate about writing, public relations and travelling, art and fashion.
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