By Ma Guihua, Womens Feature Service
Yunnan (Women’s Feature Service) – Zhao Xianming, a narcotics control liaison officer for Mengla county in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, clearly remembers the circumstances of that Saturday. Around midday on July 25, 2009, Zhao received a call from a senior police officer from Phongsaly Province, northern Laos, urging him to stop an international bus coming from Laos into Mengla. “I was told that a Laotian woman suspected of trafficking two girls was trying to bypass border check points,” recalls Zhao, who can speak fluent Laotian.
Two cousins, aged 14 and 15, who had no identity certificates with them, were excited about the prospect of working at a restaurant in a neighbouring county in Laos. The job was promised by the Laotian woman, who was married to a Chinese man. It never even occurred to them that they were actually crossing into China.
“Thanks to the timely communication from the Laos side, the two girls were rescued and handed to the Laos police the same day,” says Zhao, who believes that intelligence and information is the most cost-effective way for the efficient rescue of trafficked girls.
Mengla is China’s southern most border county in Yunnan. It shares a 677.8-kilometre border with Laos to 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 borders, the county is regarded as a major passageway to Southeast Asian countries.
Communities living in the Laos-Chinese border area usually share the same origin, customs and are, therefore, able to speak the same language. The stark difference in economic levels on either side of the border encourages cross-border migration and also leads to the menace of trafficking.
During his decade-long service in the narcotics control task force under the Mengla county public security bureau, Zhao has been involved in rescuing and transferring over ten trafficking victims from Laos. “Most victims were teenage girls from the mountainous areas of northern Laos, who were lured by the prospect of jobs or marriage opportunities at the other side of the border,” says the officer.
Although the search for better living conditions is the driving factor for cross-border migration, Zhao also cited the difference in gender ratio at the source and destination areas as another important factor for human trafficking.
With more and more Chinese labour engaged in helping 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 have sprung, some of which even sell brides.
Since 2000, according to Wang Wei, a senior police official in Mengla, the police has received reports of 31 trafficked victims from Laos, of which 19 were rescued from Chinese provinces like Hunan, Shanxi, Henan and Shandong, the latter being one of the most densely populated provinces in the country. Some women were even trafficked as far as Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, to the east of the country.
“Perhaps Laos is only a starting point or point of transit for human trafficking. Nonetheless, human trafficking has directly affected social security. It requires bilateral or multi-lateral efforts to address the issue,” observes 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 meet held recently in Mengla.
A highlight of the joint meeting was the inauguration of a border anti-trafficking liaison office for China-Laos at the Mohan land port, about 100 metres from the border.
Compared to human trafficking along the China-Myanmar and China-Vietnam borders, trafficking along China-Laos border is smaller in scale. However, ever since the Kunming-Bangkok highway which goes through Mengla was opened to traffic last year, the authorities have had to brace ourselves to deal with more cases, according to Hang Lintao, deputy director at the criminal investigation section, Yunnan Public Security Bureau.
A Global Report on Trafficking in Persons released earlier this years by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that almost 20 per cent 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 labour are the most common forms of human trafficking.
According to the latest report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund, ‘Child Trafficking in East and Southeast Asia: Reversing the Trend’, “Poverty does not cause trafficking. The demand for cheap or exploitable labour, sex with children, adoption outside the legal channels, women or girls for marriage, all contribute to the trafficking phenomenon.”
The liaison office in Mengla is one of a series of offices being set up along China’s southwest border to fight cross-border trafficking through better information sharing and investigation, as well as repatriation and victim transfer.
Over the years, child trafficking within China has penetrated most provinces. During a six-month special anti-trafficking operation this year ending in mid-October, Chinese police cracked 1,717 cases and rescued 2,008 trafficked children.
Meanwhile, trafficking on both sides of the border is on the rise. Since 2002, Chinese girls from Yunnan, looking for jobs or visiting relatives across the border, have been increasingly trafficked to Malaysia or Thailand and have ended up being sexually exploited, while girls from Laos and Vietnam have been trafficked into China and sold as brides.
“Trafficking in human beings has no borders,” says Kirsten di Martino, chief of Child Protection Section with UNICEF-China. Although media figures of cross-border cases appear quite low, she notes, “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.
But there have been concerted efforts to curb the menace. In 2004, six countries sharing the Mekong River – China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand – signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. In late 2007, China unveiled a four-year National Plan of Action on Combating Trafficking in Women and Children, mobilising over 30 government departments. The Ministry of Public Security has even set up an anti-trafficking office. In May 2009, the ministry 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 had been trafficked when they were too young to remember any details.
Zhao feels information sharing is crucial to build a national database for trafficked victims. He has also called for a simple marriage registration service to tackle trafficking through marriages. As he put it, “This is necessary, otherwise rescue efforts would be pointless and unappreciated, since the victims may choose to reunite with their ‘buyer husbands’.”