Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Fight against Child Trafficking across the Southeast

By Manny Maung
©UNICEF Myanmar/2015/Manny Maung
Mawlamyine, Mon State, June 2015- Maung Zin Taw (name changed) remembers a dark room, stifling hot. His other memories are hazy, vague recollections of blurred faces and distorted voices attached to people he cannot name.

“I remember feeling scared but I didn’t really understand what was going on,” he recalls.
A light rain is pattering on the tin roof of the verandah. The structure is a building within a Department of Social Welfare (DSW) compound in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State, where children separated from their families or trafficked male youths can find shelter.
Maung Zin Taw, 18, has lived in this institute since he was rescued from Thailand and brought back to Myanmar.
“I’m lucky,” says Maung Zin Taw. “I was taken for just a few days and I wasn’t mistreated.”  
He believes he was about eight years old when he was trafficked.
A local recruiter had convinced his parents there would be good opportunities in Thailand where a hardy boy could find work, rather than his hometown in Hpaan, Kayin State in southeastern Myanmar.
“My parents were very poor, they sold snacks and hawked whatever they could. Sometimes they found it hard to feed me,” Maung Zin Taw explains.
Maung Zin Taw’s mother finally acquiesced to the recruiter, convinced that she would have regular contact with her son and believing he would not be that far away. The distance to Thailand from Hpaan is just three hours drive away. The mother was not aware that even that distance contains lots of risks for children traveling alone, and exploitation is very likely at the final destination.
The recruiters arranged for Maung Zin Taw’s passport, which his mother had to pay for, as well travel and accommodation in Thailand. 
Once over the border into Mae Sot, some older Thai men came for him.
Maung Zin Taw was taken to a two-storied apartment and put into a room upstairs. It was at this moment he realised he was in trouble – when they seized his passport and meager belongings, locked the door and would not let him out again.
In the room were three other children, all from Myanmar and all who appeared much younger than him.
“They were very small. The next biggest one would have just reached my shoulder, the boy,” Maung Zin Taw describes. “The other two were girls.”
The room had a small verandah attached to it, which he managed to crawl out onto one day. He called out to a woman on the verandah opposite and asked for help. She appeared to understand his pleas.
Within a day, Thai police came to arrest the men who had imprisoned Maung Zin Taw and the other children. They were placed in interim housing for the next two months in Mae Sot where they could attend school and receive temporary care.
With UNICEF support, Maung Zin Taw was eventually returned to Myanmar and brought to a temporary shelter in Mawlamyine, operated by the Department of Social Welfare.
“We were not able to find my parents when I first came back.  We eventually managed to track my family down when I was 13 years old and in 7th grade”, Maung Zin Taw says. “It would have been impossible for me to continue education if I had gone back home, and although I really wanted to go back to my family, we made a decision that I would stay in Mawlamyine until finishing my education.”
Unfortunately, institutional care is seen by many of the poorest families in Myanmar as an answer to education – something that must be addressed by the government of Myanmar to avoid the unnecessary expansion of institutional care, which deprives children of a family environment and a healthy community upbringing.
Myanmar is a major source and transit country for trafficking. In 2014, the Department of Social Welfare provided reintegration support to 83 child survivors of trafficking. In the first half of 2015, Myanmar Police Force investigated 82 cases of trafficking against children, 26 of those involve children. While there is no reliable estimate of the number of Myanmar children who are trafficked each year, it is assumed that these numbers represent a small fraction of the total.
UNICEF works to strengthen the capacity of the government of Myanmar to prevent child trafficking, and to support law enforcement and criminal justice response to trafficking cases.
“With UNICEF’s support, Myanmar’s police is raising awareness of communities to promote safe migration practices and prevent trafficking”, explains Aaron Greenberg, UNICEF chief of Child Protection. “Community-based watch groups are trained to help police detect trafficking cases and we also support with investigation efforts.” 
In addition, UNICEF is working to build the capacity of the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) not only to assess, repatriate and reintegrate child survivors of trafficking, but also to provide social work case management in 27 townships throughout Myanmar. In 2015, UNICEF supported the training and deployment of 78 case managers in townships including Mawlamyine and Hpaan, to ensure that cases of violence, exploitation and abuse of children are addressed, and that vulnerable children and their families are connected to services and support.  
Awareness raising on limiting the use of institutional care, and channeling financial and social work support to families is also being carried out by the Government and UNICEF. 
“The drivers of trafficking as well as other child protection concerns include lack of access to information, provision of quality universal primary and secondary education, and social work support at community level to prevent and respond to vulnerabilities children and families face”, explains Aaron Greenberg. “While institutional care can be used as a temporary measure, it should be a last resort.”
Maung Zaw Tin and his family had a difficult decision to make – staying in Mawlamyine to finish schooling or return to family home with no education opportunities.
“I’m interested in engineering I really want to pursue my education so I can be ready to support my family”, he concludes.

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