Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. In recognition, we wanted to reflect on some issues facing indigenous peoples and other minorities in the GMS.
Along Thailand’s borders with its ASEAN neighbours, including Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, circumstances for many hill tribes are grim. Compared to urban centers, opportunities for work are scarce, as are opportunities for education. As a result, many families live in poor conditions with few prospects for stable work and education, leaving parents and their children mired in poverty with few, if any, viable ways to break the cycle. Unfortunately, nearby government schools – perhaps the best available means for families and children to improve their situations – require fees which these families cannot afford. This means that for many children, particularly among the hill tribes, the schools remain inaccessible. Children from such families face a variety of threats and vulnerabilities, being significantly more exposed than children elsewhere to dangers from disease, malnutrition and organized crime such as human trafficking. Poor children are especially at risk of being abducted, sold or otherwise drawn into human trafficking due to their dangerous environments, from which, tragically, many will never escape. Traffickers deliberately operate in regions where children are vulnerable. They follow poverty, knowing that desperate families may be induced into selling their children into slavery. And they rely on the desperation of individuals looking to improve their lives, whom traffickers deceive with promises of a better life, while in reality offering only forcible detainment, psychological manipulation, and exploitation.
The key, then, is to reach young people at risk of human trafficking before they become ensnared, which is where DEPDC/GMS comes in. Since 1989, DEPDC/GMS has offered education, accommodation and protection to as many at-risk children as possible. Across three sites – in Chiang Khong, Mae Chan and Mae Sai – we work to educate at-risk kids, improving their life skills and hopefully preventing them from having to resort to exploitative labour in order to survive. We also give them a safe place to stay during the day, reducing the threats of exploitation and abduction some would otherwise face on a weekly basis. To as many children as we can accommodate, we also provide housing for those in immediate danger from unstable home lives, placing a safety buffer between at-risk kids and the traffickers looking to exploit them. With these measures we can improve lives and even give children the chance to live the lives of freedom from slavery and exploitation to which everyone is entitled. However, there are tens of thousands of victims trafficked within, from and through Thailand every year, many of whom are women and young girls, reinforcing that while many people are working hard and gains have been made, there is yet much to be done. Therefore, in recognition of this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, we should celebrate the efforts being made to change innocent lives for the better, but remember that the task before us remains large and making a serious difference requires enthusiastic cooperation by growing numbers of committed people. But nevertheless, such dedication is the only way great things have been achieved throughout history, and the difficulty of the task ought not to deter us from a cause we believe to be just.