When Kyi Kyi Thein* and her teenage daughter took up an offer for work in neighbouring Thailand, they did not expect to be smuggled by sea and locked up in a shrimp factory.
Fortunately, they and 64 others were rescued by police in 2006. They stayed in Thailand for two more years during court proceedings against the shrimp factory and won the case, along with US$950 each in compensation.
Many Burmese, who have faced exploitation, violence, forced labour or forced prostitution abroad, return home penniless and are shunned as failures. But for Kyi Kyi Thein and her daughter, the payment helped them to rebuild their lives.
“They received compensation, and it has really helped those victims to be reintegrated into the community,” said Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw, of the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking.
An estimated 32 percent of the population live below the poverty line, but of the millions of Burmese who attempt to escape poverty by working abroad, many accrue huge debts and repatriation can be difficult.
“We need to put more pressure on the destination country and the offenders there. If those at the origin [country] have to bear the burden, we feel it’s really unfair," Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw said.
Tough times abroad and at home
After arriving at the Ranya Paew shrimp factory in central Samut Sakhon Province, 50km west of Bangkok, Kyi Kyi Thein and her daughter were told that their earnings of 30 cents per kilogram of peeled shrimp would go toward a $1,000 debt for their trafficking fees.
For the next several months, they were forced to work 20-hour shifts and saw co-workers who tried to escape stripped and tortured.
One worker peeled 18-20kg per day, but did not receive any salary until her fourth month - even then, it was only $5, according to the AFL-CIO-affiliated Solidarity Center.
Back home, villagers at first did not believe their story.
“For four or five months, people discriminated against us,” Kyi Kyi Thein said during a visit to Yangon from their home in Bago Division. “They didn’t know the real story and thought we had been in prison.”
“Even if they were working as domestic workers in the other country, the community thinks the girls are coming back from brothels or were being abused or sexually exploited by their employers,” said Khin Thant, who works in the anti-trafficking in persons unit of World Vision.
“People call them bad women, and sometimes people refuse to buy the food or the things they are selling,” said Moe Moe Swe, also with World Vision’s anti-trafficking unit.
“Sometimes the families had to invest some amount of money for their trip abroad. When they come back empty-handed, the families don’t welcome them back,” Moe Moe Swe said.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), reported that an estimated three million Burmese have migrated abroad but cited other figures suggesting that as many as five million might be living abroad, with Thailand the main destination. Myanmar has a population of around 50 million.
The Thai government, in an effort to legalize migrants, has registered more than 800,000 Burmese, but the IOM estimates there are another million undocumented labourers from the region in Thailand.
Since the 2007 establishment of the Myanmar police anti-trafficking unit, there have been more prosecutions, Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw said.
Myanmar police tallied 1,251 traffickers and 265 smugglers arrested between 2006 and 2009. Those cases were linked to 2,000 trafficking survivors and smuggled migrants – a mere fraction of the actual numbers, experts say.
The US State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report has placed Myanmar among 13 countries not making sufficient efforts to combat trafficking.
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