A Modern Form of Slavery:  Trafficking and Child Prostitution in Northern Thailand 

Tanya McQueen 
Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities (DEPDC) 


NORTHERN Thailand is a popular destination for both foreign visitors and for the Thai people themselves. The area conjures up romantic images of green rolling mountains flanked by paddy fields and colourful hilltribe villages. The beauty of the area however belies a much harsher reality. Each year thousands of young girls are trafficked from the local area and from Thailand’s neighbouring countries for purposes of sexual exploitation. They are being sold, forced and coerced to become not only prostitutes, but also beggars, domestic workers, factory workers and construction workers. 

The seriousness of the problem has been given world attention during the formation of the proposed International Labour Organisation’s Convention on the ‘worst forms of child labour’ and in the lead up to the up coming International Labour Conference. It is widely held that the proposed draft will be accepted. The proposed Convention represents a new approach taken, not to mention a new attempt to overcome the divide in opinion, by the international community in dealing with the issue of child labour. Its main objective is to focus attention and direct collective action towards the elimination of certain types of child labour, which have been defined within the document as “the worst forms”. Practices targeted for immediate elimination include “all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, forced or compulsory labour, debt bondage and serfdom”, and also the “use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution....”. 

While the approach might be new, the phenomena of trafficking and child prostitution in Thailand are not. For NGOs working on these two issues over the last decade in Northern (and Northeastern) Thailand, such as the Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities (DEPDC), it has been an up-hill struggle against a trade able to yield massive profits, defy boundaries and any concern for Human Rights. 

Northern Thailand has long had close associations with trafficking and child prostitution. The area has long been a source of supply of women and young girls demanded by brothels and other establishments linked with the sex trade in Thailand and overseas. Agents, working on behalf of brothels, have established effective and comprehensive networks throughout the countryside, systematically targeting families undergoing economic hardship in the hope of recruiting new girls. 

From DEPDC’s experience, once a family is targeted, an agent or middlemen, who may be well-respected members of the village, approach the parents of the child with offers of work. Cash incentives are offered and the parents sign a supposedly legal contract. The ‘contract’ may specify the period of employment and the amount of debt plus interest the child must pay back. It can take years to pay off the debt as extra costs are often added, such as doctors visits, food, penalties for disobedience and interest. 

On reaching the destination, many find that the reality is very different to what has been promised. Many believe that they are going to work as housemaids, in beauty salons, shops, bars or restaurants, but instead find themselves victims of gross human rights violations. They are imprisoned in brothels, forced to endure deplorable conditions and practices akin to slavery. They endure sexual, physical and mental abuse, forced to serve customers and endure dirty, over crowded conditions. They also face a high risk of catching Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases, addiction to drugs and long term psychological problems. 

While Northern Thailand has long provided traffickers with a supply of young girls, in the last five years a new trend has emerged. Traffickers have expanded their networks further afield into Thailand’s neighbouring countries. This has been in part due to an increased awareness within Thailand about the dangers of trafficking and prostitution. This increased awareness has been largely a result of many years of social and educational programs mounted by the Thai government, NGO work with local communities, especially with hilltribe communities, increased incidence of Aids, increased numbers of children going to school and some law reform. 

Agents have now established networks reaching into the remote areas of Thailand’s neighbours including Burma, Laos, Southern China and Cambodia. The Children are mainly brought in through North and Northeastern Thailand where they are then taken to other areas within the country. Although there are no exact figures available regarding the numbers of children being trafficked into Thailand for sexual exploitation, estimates nevertheless provide an indicative picture. From Burma, it was estimated in 1994 that as many as 20,000 to 30,000 women and girls had been trafficked primarily into brothels in Thailand, with 10,000 new recruits being added each year. From Yunnan Province, Southern China, government estimates that in 1995 at least 2,500 girls, mainly from minority groups, have been trafficked. In 1996, The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, estimated that one million women of various nationalities have been trafficked into Thailand (cited UNDP et. al 1998). 

Recruitment of children from these new areas is similar to domestic recruitment; the parents of a child are approached, a cash advance is offered, work is promised and a contract is signed. These children tend to be trafficked into the low-grade brothels and into establishments with close links to the sex industry including bars, restaurants and pubs. DEPDC has found this to be the case particularly in Chiang Rai, where girls are being increasingly trafficked into establishments that are closely linked with the sex industry. Such establishments include restaurants, pubs, bars, cafes and kareoke, where boys and girls may wait on tables but also may be available to keep the customer company. They may also be rented by the hour or the night. Also, in Guesthouses, hotels, and motels, young women are available to provide room service or to act as a “friend” to the guest for the period of their holiday. On the whole, these places tend to escape prosecution as on the surface the children seem to be doing legitimate work. 

From DEPDC’s experience, the ‘push-factors’ which make a child vulnerable tend to be varied, interwoven and complex. Some of these factors include poverty, debt, armed conflict, break down of family units, a tradition of prostitution in the family, familial obligation, inadequate education, lack of employment opportunities and consumerism. DEPDC has found that consumerism, particularly in the last few years, has increasingly played a strong role. Through numerous interviews conducted by DEPDC staff with young returned prostitutes, it was found that although poverty was cited as a factor, it was often equated with a lack of consumer goods. In one village close to Mae Sai consisting of 180 families, 80 had at least one child in prostitution. A girl from the village, when asked why she went to work as a prostitute answered in the following way, “My family was so poor, we had nothing, no car, TV or refrigerator”. Another girl also from the same village stated that, “my family had not enough things, but my elder sister went to work as a prostitute and my family situation improved. We had a car and a home”. 

Consumerism or even a desire to seek excitement in the larger cities can be motivating factors for many children seeking to leave the village on their own free will. However, often they end up in similar circumstances to those who have been directly trafficked from the village, working in brothels or other establishments related to the sex trade. Swe Swe’s story highlights this. When Swe Swe was 17 years old she and her two friends decided to leave their village in Wan Bao near the Chinese border, in order to find work as maids or laundresses. On arriving in Mae Sai, Thailand, a Burmese man offered to help them to find work and to avoid arrest. A van drove them with two other girls to Bangkok. After a week they were taken to a brothel in Bangkok and were forced to work. Swe Swe had no idea that she was in a brothel until her first customer forced himself on her (Asia Watch, 1993). 

While it is common knowledge that trafficking and child prostitution is taking place, efforts to contain the growing problem do not seem to be working. One reason is the huge profits that are yielded from the trade. One report estimated that 450-540 billion baht (approximately US$18-21.6 billion) is generated from sex workers per year, which was 50-60% of the government’s budget in 1995. This high yielding business as a result attracts highly organised gangs who are able to use their profits to buy power, influence and corrupt justice. They are able to move easily across borders, influencing and asserting power over local officials and police (including border patrols, customs and immigration officers) often cooperating with gangs from other countries by sharing profits (cited Roujanavong 1997). 

While governments, big businesses and employee organisations prepare themselves for yet another Convention, NGOs such as DEPDC, who have been given no real participatory role within the formation process, will continue their work against this most serious crime. If nothing else, it is hoped that the Convention will bring real commitment for action in the way of new sources of funding and resources to NGOs who have and will continue to be at the forefront of efforts to eliminate intolerable forms of child labour such as trafficking and child prostitution. 


Asia Watch & Women’s Rights Project (1993), A Modern Form Of Slavery: Trafficking of Burmese Women and Girls in Thailand. 

Roujanavong, W. (1997), Thailand: The Situation of Traffic in Women. Prepared for Regional Conference on “Illegal Labour Movements: The Case Of Trafficking in Women and Children”, Bangkok. 

UNDP, UNIFEM, SEAwatch (1998), Trafficking in Women and Children: Mekong Sub-Region. A joint publication prepared for the 42nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women.