Is Thailand Losing the Battle Against Human Traffickers?

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Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images

A girl dances at a nightclub in Pattaya, Thailand, in 2009

The policeman's hand hovers over his holstered Glock pistol, but the precaution is unnecessary: Operation Graceland starts not with a bang but with whimpers.

It's sunset. I join a dozen officers from the Anti-Human Trafficking Division (AHTD) of the Royal Thai Police as they burst into a two-room apartment off Bangkok's sleazy Sukhumvit Road. Crammed inside are 12 women from Uzbekistan, aged from 19 to their early 30s, and soon most of them are crying. One woman faints and is heaved onto a bed by her sobbing compatriots. Another wails. The police seem overwhelmed.

Then comes the hard part. Some of these women have been lured with false promises from a poor Central Asian nation and forced to sell their bodies to tourists in the Thai capital. Some are "minders" who threaten and beat the other women on behalf of unseen bosses. How to separate the victims from the villains?

Rescues are rare and, as Thailand's plodding investigation of the Uzbek case shows, less effective than their advocates claim. Successful trafficking convictions are rarer still: there were just 3,619 worldwide in 2010, reports the U.S. State Department, despite at least 60 countries — including Thailand — passing tough new antitrafficking laws in the past decade. There are 12.3 million people in forced prostitution and labor globally, estimates the State Department. But while millions of dollars are blown on conferences and awareness campaigns, rescuing victims and jailing their tormentors is proving as hard as ever.

Study Operation Graceland — the name derives from a notorious Bangkok hotel where the Uzbeks worked — and you begin to understand why. It led to the safe repatriation of two young women, but barely dented the network that trafficked them.

The operation began with a brave and desperate Uzbek woman called, let's say, Matluba, to protect her identity. Nearly half of Uzbekistan's 28 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. Matluba, now in her mid-20s, hailed from a village near Samarkand, the second largest city after the capital, Tashkent. Estranged from her husband, and with a newborn daughter to support, she was told by a woman who had returned from Thailand that she could earn a $100 a day there working in a warm, nice place. She fell for the bait.

When Matluba reached her destination — a one-room Bangkok apartment shared with nine other Uzbek prostitutes — her passport was confiscated. By day, she was confined to the apartment by a minder, another Uzbek woman. By night, she was forced to sleep with — and sometimes drug and rob — clients at a hotel nearby. Matluba saw none of the estimated $240,000 a month earned by her 40-strong gang. She was told that she owed $6,000 for her ticket and visa, and had to hand all earnings to her minder.

Matluba's eventual savior was a client from New Zealand, who reported her plight to his embassy. With the help of the U.N. and the Freeland Foundation, a Bangkok-based organization that fights human and wildlife trafficking, an escape plan was hatched. Matluba got her passport back by telling her minder that a hotel reception required it to visit a man's room. Then she snuck away to meet Steve Galster, Freeland's director, who gave her warm clothes for the Tashkent winter and a lift to Bangkok's main airport.

Two days later, thanks to Matluba's testimony, Operation Graceland was launched. The AHTD drove the weeping Uzbeks to police headquarters, hoping that questioning would help to separate victims from victimizers. Women are often reluctant to identify themselves as trafficked. Some fear their captors. Others fear the police, whose corruption in many countries stymies countertrafficking efforts. Many women prefer to quietly pay off their debts, in the hope of one day keeping their earnings. "It's often in their interests to close ranks with the traffickers," says Galster.

Still, the AHTD identified two victims among the Uzbeks: Nila and Lusa (also not their real names), both 19. Nila went to Bangkok on the promise of a hotel job and refused to sell sex until her minder had shown her a video of men gang-raping an Uzbek woman for trying to escape. Lusa knew she would be a prostitute in Bangkok. She hoped to raise money for a 3-year-old child she had left behind. Of the remaining nine women, eight were either deported for immigration violations or released without charge.

Only one was arrested: Shahina Rajabova, 30. What happened next exposes a major flaw in prosecuting suspected traffickers: cases against them usually stand or fall on whatever testimony can be coaxed from their victims. Rajabova was charged with trafficking, which carries a 10-year sentence under Thai law, and illegally confining the women. But the case against her largely depended upon two traumatized teenagers languishing in a government shelter. Lusa and Nila phoned home to hear that their families had been threatened. They were pressured by Uzbek diplomats in Bangkok, who wanted the case dropped. When they finally appeared in court, Lusa and Nila denied Rajabova had abused them. They now claimed she had looked after them.

The young women are now back in Uzbekistan. The case against their alleged trafficker is in limbo. She has been released on bail and, says the State Department, "has reportedly resumed her involvement in Bangkok's sex industry."

Catching traffickers without relying on victim testimony requires undercover work. But complex investigations stretch the resources and resolve of police in developing countries. Traffickers can't be arrested and jailed without dedicated police and prosecutors, who need more training and funding to investigate effectively. Only then might we improve our abysmal global conviction rates. The U.N. calls trafficking "a crime that shames us all." The real shame is that so few people are jailed for it.