Bjorn Karlman graduated from Andrews in 2006. He and his wife, Jammie are traveling the world and doing service projects in four world cities in 2013. For more on their adventures, visit CultureMutt.com. The following article was originally posted here.
“They actually walk up to bar girls and other trafficked women in bars and brothels and try to offer them ways to escape.”
I was listening to a friend of mine who I’ll call Kim.
“It’s a really bold approach. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it really backfires. When it works they can sometimes work with a UN agency that can transport the trafficked women back to their home countries. When it backfires the pimps find out, it gets ugly and you’ve got to get out quick.”
Jammie and I leaned in with interest. We had never heard of any organization tackling sex slavery this directly.
The trap of sex slavery
“Sometimes they can get enough time with the girls that they are able to befriend them.
The stories are so sad. Whether they are Thai women from up north or young Cambodian or Burmese girls, many come here because they are promised well-paid work through which they can support their families. When they get to Bangkok they are forced into the sex industry.”
Kim continued “It’s very hard to leave. Thai girls that are forced into prostitution are often controlled by pimps that threaten them and hold them in economic bondage.
Due to their low levels of education, prostitution is often the most lucrative work available. If they don’t bring in enough “work” they are fined by their handlers and they fall into debt. It’s nasty.
With foreign girls it is even worse because they are often here illegally. Unless they cooperate with their employers, they can be reported to the authorities and locked up at the Immigration Detention Center without documentation.”
It was deeply depressing to listen to. And the results of what Kim was describing are on open display in Bangkok.
The sexpats that fuel human trafficking
Walk down the street after dark in areas like the Nana district of Bangkok (a major shopping and eating area) and you will see middle-aged male tourists leaning in to negotiate prices with Thai bar girls.
Everywhere you look, men are pulling purchased women into cabs and others are being stopped in the street by prostitutes pressured to meet quotas.
As much as most visitors to Bangkok are shocked by the strength of the sex industry, and while many Thais and foreigners agree that something must be done, most are left scratching their heads about what to actually do to help.
Which brings me back to what Kim was talking about. There are a handful of organizations that are tackling the issue aggressively.
To protect individuals and “undercover” organizations from unwanted mafia-like intervention, I am going to omit names of specific individuals and organizations.
But I will say that I have the utmost admiration for their bravery and willingness to step up to the plate.
One lady that I talked to had moved to Bangkok from the US with her husband and kids to work with a ministry that taught ex prostitutes valuable life skills including how to make a decent living making jewelry.
A handful of organizations do what Kim described at the top of this post: Female aid workers walk Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong (the biggest red light districts) and try to start a dialogue with bar girls, massage parlor (often a front for brothels) staff and other prostitutes.
They befriend their contacts and offer them alternate ways to make a living or ways to get the financial and legal means to return to their home countries if they are foreign.
It is hard work. Although prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, police are paid off by pimps and bar owners to look the other way. So it is hard to count on support from the authorities.
Sometimes you feel like you are not even making the smallest dent in the problem. Everything feels hopeless and the challenges of fighting sex slavery seem insurmountable.
But I want to end on an admittedly sentimental note: As I write these words I am on a British Airways flight 32,000 feet above Russia. Jammie and I have completed our three months in Bangkok and are headed to Buenos Aires to start our work there.
It’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotion as I think back to the orphans we said goodbye to a few hours ago, the inmates that we had the privilege of working with and the dozens of friends that we made during our time in Thailand. We leave feeling incredibly inspired by the stories they have told us and the way each of them works to improve their community, their city.
One of the most inspirational things I got to personally witness happened during the coffee hour at a church I visited one Sunday.
I was quizzing an aid worker and she told me about the results of her organization’s work fighting the sex industry.
“There’s an entire table over there full of women that have been liberated from prostitution. They are now making a living for themselves and their families creating jewelry. This can work. They can have a brighter future!”
Indeed they can.
This, my final post before I start chronicling our Argentina adventures, is dedicated to the brave heroes that take the risks to rescue those that are currently enslaved. We will forever be inspired by your bravery, dedication and service. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you do.