Fighting cross-border human trafficking

0 CommentsPrint E-mail Xinhua, November 29, 2009
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Zhao Xianming, a narcotics control liaison officer for Mengla county in southwest China's Yunnan Province, clearly remembered the circumstances of that Saturday.

Around midday July 25, 2009, Zhao received a call from a senior police officer from Phongsaly Province, northern Laos, urging him to stop an international bus traveling from Laos to Mengla.

"I was told that a Laotian woman suspected of trafficking two girls was trying to bypass border check points," recalled Zhao, who speaks fluent Laotian.

The two cousins, aged 14 and 15, and with no identity certificates with them, were excited about the prospects of working at a restaurant in a neighboring county in Laos promised by the Laotian woman, who was married to a Chinese man. It was beyond their wildest dreams that they were actually heading for China.

"Thanks to the timely communication with the Lao side, the two girls were rescued at the border crossing and handed over to the Lao police the same day," said Zhao, who believed that intelligence and information are the most cost-effective way for efficient and speedy rescue.

Mengla is the southmost border county in Yunnan Province. It shares a 677.8-kilometer borderline with Laos in the south and east, and is separated in the west from Myanmar only by a river. With 46 land crossings, 14 market places for border residents, as well as five motorways to the Laos and Myanmar border, it is regarded as a major passageway to Southeast Asian countries.

Residents at the Lao-Chinese border usually share the same origin, custom and are therefore able to speak the same language. Different economic levels at both sides of the border have sparked cross-border migration as well as human trafficking.

During the ten-year since he was on the narcotics control task force under Mengla county public security bureau, Zhao has been involved in rescuing and transferring over ten abducted victims from Laos.

"Most victims are teenage girls from mountainous areas in northern Laos, who were lured by job or marriage opportunities at the other side of the border," said the police officer.

Although economy is the driving factor for cross-border migration, Zhao also cited the difference in gender ratio at the source and destination areas for human trafficking.

As more and more Chinese laborers are engaged in helping the locals grow rubber trees and other cash crops to weed out poppy production in Laos, which is part of the notorious Golden Triangle for drug manufacturing and smuggling, clandestine cross-border match-making services also came into being, Zhao added.

Since 2000, according to Wang Wei, police chief in Mengla, the police have received reports on 31 trafficked victims from Laos, of which 19 were rescued from provinces including Hunan, Shanxi, Henan and Shandong. Some were even trafficked as far as Suzhou in east China's Jiangsu Province.

"Maybe Laos is only a starting point or transit place for human trafficking. Nonetheless, human trafficking has directly affected social security, it takes bilateral or multi-lateral efforts to address the issue," said Kiengkham Inphengthavong, head of the secretariat of Laos' National Steering Committee on Human Trafficking, under the Ministry of Public Security, during the Laos-China anti-trafficking meeting held in Mengla in mid-October.

A highlight of the joint meeting is the inauguration of a border liaison office for China-Lao anti-trafficking at Mohan land port, about 100 meters from the China-Lao boundary marker.

Compared with human trafficking along China-Myanmar, China-Vietnam border, trafficking along China-Lao border is relatively less serious. However, as the Kunming-Bangkok highway (via Mengla) was open to traffic last year, "we have to brace ourselves for more cases," said Hang Lintao, deputy director at the criminal investigation section, Yunnan Public Security Bureau.

A Global Report on Trafficking in Persons released this February by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that almost 20 percent of all trafficked victims are children. In some parts of the Mekong region, it noted, children are the majority. What's more, sexual exploitation and forced labor are common in human trafficking.

A latest report released by the United Nations Children's Fund titled Child Trafficking in East and Southeast Asia: Reversing the Trend warned that child trafficking still persists in east and southeast Asia.

"Poverty does not cause trafficking. The demand for cheap or exploitable labor, sex with children, adoption outside the legal cannels, women or girls for marriage, all contribute to the trafficking phenomenon," it said.

The liaison office in Mengla is one of a series of offices set up along China's southwest border to fight cross-border human trafficking to the effect of information sharing, investigation, evidence obtaining as well as repatriation and victim transfer.

Over the years, child trafficking within China has almost penetrated most provinces. During the 6-month special anti-trafficking operation this year leading up to mid-October, Chinese police have cracked 1,717 cases, rescuing 2,008 trafficked children. In the meantime, cross-border trafficking, however small in numbers, is also on the rise.

Ever since 2001 when the China office of UNICEF started its pilot project on China-Vietnam cross-border trafficking, it has supported the Ministry of Public Security in setting up border liaison offices in Dongxing, Pingxiang, Jingxi in Guangxi Autonomous Region, and Ruili, Hekou, Longchuan and Mohan in Yunnan Province.

"We have helped organize border visits, training and prevention advocacy for police officers and other stake-holders from both sides of the border," said Wang Daming, child protection specialist with UNICEF-China.

To help Chinese police better communicate with their Vietnamese counterparts as well as trafficking victims, UNICEF-China even facilitated a six-month Vietnamese learning session.

Two ad hoc anti-trafficking operations between Chinese and Vietnamese police in 2005 and 2006 have resulted in the rescue and return of hundreds of victims.

Rehabilitation centers were also established in Dongxing and Ningming in Guangxi, and Kunming in Yunnan, where victims of trafficking were provided with physical counseling before they were transfered back home.

"Trafficked victims used to be regarded as criminal suspects, having crossed borders illegally," said Wang Daming. Now the concept of child protection is placed at the heart of anti-trafficking, as children who have their rights as any other people are entitled to protection and assistance.

He Ye, a Yunnan-based anti-trafficking project manager for Save the Children, an international charity for children, has personally witnessed changes in cross-border trafficking patterns.

Since 2002, the number of Chinese girls being trafficked to Malaysia or Thailand has been on the rise, He said. Meanwhile, girls from the Laos and Vietnam were being trafficked to China.

From 2004 up to this year, said He, Save the Children has rescued 50 Chinese girls from Thailand and Malaysia, with the help of police and the women's federation in Yunnan Province.

Li Ping, director for communications at Save the Children (China), on reviewing the stages of intervention from awareness building to safe migration, poverty alleviation, job creation, to practical skills training, noted that an overall child protection mechanism is vital to anti-trafficking.

"As child trafficking is taking on different forms, such as a shift of boys trafficked for adoption to sexual exploitation, a holistic view of rights protection should be taken on board to address the root cause."

"Human trafficking has no borders," said Kirsten di Martino, chief of Child Protection Section with UNICEF-China. With rapid economic development at the border region, there is increased risk of trafficking as a result of migration, improved transportation routes, making children and women more vulnerable.

Although media figures of cross-border cases appear quite low, she noted, "it is in fact only the tip of the iceberg", as there isn't a good mechanism in place to report and follow any trafficking incidences when they unfold.

Nonetheless, she pledged that UNICEF and other international organizations "are committed to supporting the efforts of countries in preventing, combating human trafficking and protecting victims."

In 2004, six countries sharing the Mekong River -- China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand -- signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons in the Greater Mekong Sub-region.

To better coordinate anti-trafficking efforts, the Chinese police have over the years signed memoranda of understanding (MOU) with its counterparts in Vietnam and Myanmar.

"This ensures a long-term working mechanism for effective cooperation, " said Wang Daming from UNICEF-China, a major facilitator for the MOU.

In late 2007, China unveiled a four-year National Plan of Action on Combating Trafficking in Women and Children, mobilizing 30 plus government departments to get involved in the mission. Meanwhile, an anti-trafficking office is set up in the Ministry of Public Security.

In May 2009, the Ministry of Public Security launched a DNA database for trafficked or missing children, designating 43 DNA laboratories affiliated to public security bureaus at provincial and city (county) levels to share and compare DNA information and recover children who have been trafficked when they are too young to remember any details.

But for Zhao Xianming, the police officer from Mengla County, it's crucial to incorporate information relating to cross-border trafficking victims into the national database for trafficking victims.

He also called for a clear legal clarification of trafficking from marriages among border residents and international marriages, with the provision of simple marriage registration services.

"Otherwise, rescue efforts would be pointless and unappreciated if the victims choose to reunite with their 'buyer husbands'."

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