When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in May, leaving close to 140,000 people dead or missing, aid workers feared an increase in child trafficking from the region.
Burmese children have long been trafficked into Bangkok and other urban areas of Thailand where they are forced to sell flowers, beg or work in domestic service, according to World Vision. Others work in agriculture, fishing, construction and the sex industry, the NGO said.
Today they make up the largest proportion of foreign child labour, Thailand's immigration detention centres report.
However, despite the risks, no increases have been reported, although specialists caution that accurate figures are not available. "We've had no reports of an increase in trafficking numbers," Mark Thomas, chief of communications for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Thailand, told IRIN.
"If there were such report[s] I would be cautious about using [them] since there are no accurate figures on the numbers of people who are trafficked on a regular basis prior to the cyclone," he said – a sentiment echoed by aid workers in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, from where so many Burmese enter the country.
"Trafficking happens here every day," said Aye Aye Mar, founder of Social Action for Women, a local NGO providing shelter and training for Burmese women and children.
"We saw one group of about 100 women from the cyclone region brought to Mae Sot by smugglers, but we haven't seen any cases involving children," said Aye Aye Mar.
While most evidence of Nargis-related trafficking has been anecdotal, one NGO working in Myanmar intervened in seven trafficking cases in June, some involving children.
"Children are at increased risk of being trafficked when they're separated from their parents or primary caregivers, as was the case with some children during Cyclone Nargis," said one field officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Those risks are exacerbated when families are impoverished and children are forced to undertake more exploitative work to contribute to family livelihood, the aid worker said.
Mae Sot lies on the principal land route into Myanmar through the border town of Myawaddy. It is also a key point on migration and trafficking routes between the two countries, with many Burmese coming to work in the town's factories and farms.
It has Thailand's largest Burmese population, estimated at 80,000-plus, nine refugee camps, and probably the largest concentration of Myanmar-focused international and local NGOs in the country.
Photo: Lynn Maung/IRIN
|Children are especially vulnerable to trafficking when a disaster disrupts family security (file photo)|
Aid workers say trafficking works in several ways. Some involves highly visible activities where job brokers in Myanmar distribute posters, fliers and T-shirts advertising overseas work with free flights and high salaries – the average Burmese annual wage is about US$240.
A more usual story is people wanting work contact the brokers.
But with child trafficking, brokers approach poor families directly - offering cash to take their child to a city such as Bangkok to earn money by selling flowers or begging.
Many economic migrants fall into the trafficking trap upon arrival in Mae Sot, according to one local NGO.
"Once migrant families arrive here [Mae Sot], their children become increasingly vulnerable to trafficking," a local aid worker, who did not want to be named, said.
"This happens for a couple of reasons. First, their parents work all day and can't look after them, so they become more visible to the traffickers. Second, the family needs money," she said.
"In poor families it is normal for children to work. So when a broker offers them 1,500 baht [$42.80] per month to take the child to Bangkok to sell flowers, they don't see it as human trafficking."
But many families see only the first one or two payments from the traffickers, who quickly break off contact. Many never see their children again.
"The children who are trafficked are very young," explained Aye Aye Mar. "They often can't remember where they come from, and don't know how to contact their family or village if they manage to run away from the brokers."
Educating migrant families and vulnerable communities within Myanmar about the risk of trafficking, and the tricks and promises employed by brokers, is key to fighting the trade.
This needs to be backed up with capacity-building at an institutional level, noted Ashley Clements, an advocacy officer with World Vision Myanmar.
"Some of the most effective ways that World Vision has been working on trafficking has been the capacity-building of government officials, upgrading their skills to make them more aware of the associated issues and how to address them," he said.
"But if we don't find solutions to help vulnerable people rebuild their livelihoods and start earning a living, then they will remain much more vulnerable to trafficking," he warned.