Kachin refugee women at risk for trafficking due to conflict, says report

Burning-house-near-LaizaThousands of Kachin women refugees displaced by fighting in northern Burma are at risk of trafficking and other forms of exploitation says a new report just released by the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT).

The report titled “Pushed to the Brink Conflict and human trafficking on the Kachin-China border” concludes that the Kachin conflict which has displaced some 100,000 people in Kachin and north western Shan state has “exponentially increased the risk of human trafficking along the China-Burma border”.

Trafficking in women and children was a serious problem along the China-Burma border prior to the outbreak of fighting in June 2011. The Kachin conflict which has forced more than 50,000 people to flee to under equipped camps along the border in Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) territory has created a situation where there are now many more women now vulnerable to exploitation, says KWAT.

"The villages from which women were trafficked [before the conflict] have now moved en masse to the Chinese border, bringing them to the very doorstep of a country with multiple migration pull factors”, says the KWAT report.

"Push tens of thousands of people to China’s doorstep, deprive them of food and status, and you’ve created a perfect storm for human trafficking,” said KWAT spokesperson Julia Marip in a press release announcing her group's report.

Many young women who initially registered in internally displaced persons camps in KIO territory have crossed into China looking for jobs to support their families because there is a serious shortage of food in the camps due to an unofficial aid blockade enforced by Burmese military authorities. Once in China with little money or official ID documents, refugee women can quickly find themselves in dire circumstances.

One mother interviewed by KWAT revealed how her teenage daughter was sold after a brief trip to China went horribly wrong. “We were staying in an IDP camp near Laiza when my (15-year-old) daughter was sold. She was studying at the school in the camp, but had taken three days off school to collect coffee on the China side. There she met Ma B., a Kachin woman living in China, who told her Chinese men liked her and wanted to marry her” the mother told KWAT, a story that is all too common.

KWAT’s report which was released on Wednesday documents 24 cases of actual or suspected trafficking involving refugee women displaced by the war. Many of the women were tricked, drugged, raped, and sold to Chinese husband's as brides for sums that exceeded 40,000 Yuan (US $6,500). Others were sold into bonded labor.

While most of the cases documented by KWAT involved women who ended up in China's southern Yunnan province, which borders Kachin and Shan states, some of the women were sent as far east as Shandong and Fujian provinces.

One teenage girl interviewed for the report escaped from her captors when they were separated at a Chinese checkpoint. “When the policeman came to check for our IDs, I didn’t have any ID and they took me to the police station. When they asked me questions, I was not able to understand Chinese. Then, they called someone who can speak Burmese. I told them that I was sold to the two Chinese men. They arrested the two Chinese men and got me a ticket back to Yin Jiang [a town close the KIO's defacto capital Laiza]”. But many other women were not so lucky and their relatives have had little success in trying to track them down.

The report includes the testimony of the mother of an 18 year-old women who was a poorly paid migrant in China. “M. worked as a housekeeper for a Chinese woman…Since the war started, M. was not able to return home and stayed at Lah Ying…the Chinese woman invited her to visit a place in China. No one could contact M. for two weeks. After two weeks, she made contact and reported that the sister of the Chinese woman had sold her in China,” the mother told KWAT.

China's much criticized one child policy is often identified as a major contributing factor to the trafficking crisis along the China Burma border. The policy which has been in place for more than 3 decades has resulted in many Chinese families opting to terminate their female babies resulting in a distorted male to female ratio.  This has meant there is a serious shortage of Chinese brides. Due to this shortage many desperate Chinese men have opted to buy brides from Burma, or from other impoverished communities in Vietnam and Laos, using marriage brokers and middle men.

While some of the arranged marriages conducted by brokers occur with the brides consent many others do not. As the KWAT report describes many of the Kachin women who were trafficked were lured by the promise of well-paying jobs which turned out to be completely fictitious.  But by this time it is too late and women or teenage girl is forced into a marriage completely against her will.

In some of the cases the victim's own relatives are alleged to have orchestrated the trafficking of the Kachin refugees themselves. One KIO soldier interviewed by the report describes coming back to the IDP camp where his family had been living only to discover that his wife had participated in the trafficking of his 16 year old and his own child.

“My son and my youngest sister were sold to China in June 2011 after the war started. Their whereabouts are still unknown. My wife is now staying with a Chinese man in Yin Jiang, China. Only after I came back from the front line, I learned about this situation. I have unspeakable feelings to know that my wife herself sold my younger sister and son,” the man told KWAT.

The report notes that while Burma's nominally civilian government has received praise from western countries for increasing its efforts to battle the trafficking, including scoring better on the most recent US State departments annual report card on trafficking, little if anything has actually changed on the ground in northern Burma according to KWAT. If anything the army's continued campaign against ethnic inhabited areas in Kachin and Shan states has created a situation where many more women are now vulnerable.

Although the Burmese government has an anti-trafficking office in Loije, a government controlled border town which is very to the KIO's second largest town Mai Ja Yang, no Kachin trafficking victims are known to have reported their cases to the office, likely because few Kachin trust the government whose armed force have been targeting Kachin civilians for persecution. According to KWAT the office appears to have done little if anything to combat trafficking or help victims.

The authors of the KWAT report acknowledge that the 24 cases they documented are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more cases involving the trafficking of women are thought to have gone unreported by the family members who have not contacted KWAT or its partner organizations.
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