The Heinous Ensemble

Trafficking in persons is now the third most profitable business for organized crime.

 – UN Office on Drugs and Crime (2000)

…it is now the third largest source of profits for international organized crime, behind only drugs and guns.

 – U.S. Department of State (2000)

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

 – Margaret Mead

Many people may be familiar with some of the architects of the child slavery industry, such as the international and domestic mafia, corrupt police and bureaucrats, brothel owners and operators, and pimps and clients. While these people are essential members of the heinous ensemble, their contributions alone don’t engineer and sustain the human trafficking industry of which child exploitation is a part. Rather, it requires much broader participation from a range of further members whom many people may not be familiar with. In addition, the ensemble doesn’t even include the vast network of reticent bystanders who view, but turn blind eyes to, these crimes and who’re not just poorly known, largely due to the surreptitiousness of the human trafficking industry, but are virtually imperceptible. And although this network isn’t directly involved in human trafficking, its inaction helps to facilitate the direct involvement of others, meaning the people of which it consists bear guilt from their knowing complicity.

Similarly, the lesser-known members of the ensemble aren’t always as directly involved as their better-known counterparts, though they, too, are as necessary as the other contributors, since the system of induction into and exploitation within human trafficking could not continue without enduring assistance from the entire group. In recognition, then, of the nature of exploitation, leaving aside the network of silent spectators, it’s worthwhile to meet the cast of the ensemble and to understand their motives in order to see how we can prevent their collaboration and attack human trafficking at its foundations.

Beginning with the better-known members, their incentive for collaboration is plain enough – profit. International and domestic mafia are professional exploiters of human beings, and have been now for centuries. From drugs, to weapons, to child prostitutes and everything in between, they’re masters of profiting from the suffering and depravity of others. Likewise, corrupt police and government officials are experienced profiteers of criminal industries, having long been rewarded for actively abetting and passively allowing criminal enterprises to function and expand without interference from the law. Indeed, this section of the ensemble is particularly large, encompassing lowly officers and police captains, border guards and immigration officials, bureaucrats and elected leaders, and many in between.

The matrix of individuals is driven both by the profit which they can obtain and by the fear of the consequences which might follow should they oppose or expose the prevailing system. In turn, this enfranchises the owners and operators of brothels who, with certain discretion, can freely carry out human trafficking so long as the right kickbacks are disbursed and potential opposition is cowed, meaning good people are silenced by the threat of reprisals. Incidentally, with reality shrouded and the industry built, the clients whose gruesome desires these businesses serve, and the pimps who profit from seeing them satisfied, have no compunction in exploiting victims and being rewarded for their suffering, including small children.

Thus, the motives of the better-known members are as clear as they are sickening. But what of the lesser-known members, what’s their inducement? As becomes equally clear, though there’re some additional circumstances and general nuances, in principle, there’s no great difference in motive between the lesser- and better-known members – they’re all moved by profit at the expense of others, even their own children.

The lesser-known members include village leaders and elders, bankers and beauticians, drivers and doctors, travel agents and tour guides, and family and parents. Simply enough, village leaders and elders, entrusted by their communities with making important decisions for the welfare of their people, are paid by traffickers not to impede their business or make a fuss with authorities. As people’s poverty grows, so does the enticement of such offers, until leaders eventually succumb to temptation and often also to intimidation and threats. Though the inducement to such ends is more or less comprehensible, this in no way mollifies enmity towards their acquiescence, since no circumstances can justify slavery and exploitation, particularly of children.

Bankers and beauticians, too, are essentially the same. Banks and bankers are approached by brothels for loans. The loans not only finance the businesses, the fundamental units of human trafficking, but contribute an element of legitimacy to the façade which traffickers try to cultivate. While, in theory, the bankers could refuse to be complicit, forcing the traffickers to find funding elsewhere and withdrawing the veneer of legitimacy, it ‘s a terribly slim prospect that bankers would summon the nerve to refuse petty criminals and sophisticated mafia who’re at least tacitly supported by corrupt police and members of government.

In truth, there’s an appearance of inevitability which is crucial in compelling many members of the ensemble to cooperate in spite of their better nature, each depending on how deeply they object to the situation. Again, though, the apparent hopelessness and unavoidability these people perceive only makes their situation comprehensible, not excusable. For beauticians, too, the equation is the same, as the circumstances compel them to silence and complicity while they beautify women and young girls to please their clientele.

So, too, drivers and doctors are instrumental cogs for whom the pattern of inevitability and collaboration holds the same. Drivers are responsible for transporting people to where they’ll be exploited. They receive a cut for their involvement and, according to rescued and escaped victims, many are police. As another fundamental service, doctors are needed to keep slaves healthy enough to work and to maintain necessary health certificates. This entails checks for STIs at clinics, incorporating not just one doctor but knowing medical staff and the clinic at large, not to mention hospitals, should they be involved.

Travel agencies and tour guide services exist in dozens of countries around the world which specifically cater to this industry, informing prospective clients of the businesses available and giving instructions and tours to herd them to the brothels. Naturally, such organizations are valuable assets, requiring great subtlety and expertise to develop contacts without attracting unwanted attention, and are well rewarded for their services. Hence, commensurate with the importance of their role, the risks for the perpetrators are often worth the dividends they reap.

Finally, perhaps the most disturbing component of the ensemble is the participation of the family members of human trafficking victims, especially their parents. Living in poor regions where human trafficking is most common – such as border regions where the rights of impoverished Thais and ethnic minorities are fewer and more readily violated than elsewhere – the traffickers view the families as vulnerable sources of easy profit, deliberately operating in areas where they reside. Being approached by traffickers or their proxies, the decision to sell one’s child, grandchild, sibling, niece or nephew into slavery is complicated. With their family member on the traffickers’ radar, relatives might recognize the distinct possibility that regardless of their consent in the matter, victims of trafficking can be simply abducted, particularly girls and young children.

From this, a line of thought reasons, with obvious turpitude, that it may be best to sell the relative before they’re abducted in order to at least derive some profit. Such thinking’s encouraged by pretensions that victims will earn money to help themselves and their families, repaying ‘debts’ to their captors until they’re one day free to leave. In reality, however, the vast majority and perhaps the entirety of the money gained will line the pockets of the heinous ensemble, very little of which, beyond the initial transaction, will see its way to the victims, their families or their communities – though, of course, even if it did it’d in no way legitimise the despicable situation. Families are thus placed in awful positions, especially the intended victim, to which some will more quickly yield than others, depending on their moral integrity and wherewithal to resist. Tragically, though, regardless of families’ refusals and protections, if traffickers set their sights on a particular target, the outcome may nevertheless be a fait accompli.

These, then, are the members of the heinous ensemble, whose active and passive collaboration is required to manufacture and sustain the human trafficking industry. It’s a large industry, spanning over fifty countries and generating value of over US $30 billion per year. The primary benefactors are the mafia and the owners and operators of the brothels involved – though the petty criminals, corrupt officials, and numerous intermediaries also profit enough to make their involvement worthwhile.

For example, tour guides can expect at least a 30% cut for each customer they deliver to a brothel, while taxi drivers can expect at least a 10% cut for the same service. Drivers transporting victims from villages to brothels can expect 3-5,000 baht (roughly $95-160 USD) per trip and will be recompensed out of the pitiful subsistence wages the victims earn if the car’s stopped at checkpoints and fined for improper documentation or if impromptu bribes are required. Recalling that many of these drivers are in fact police officers, and noting that their kickbacks as officers are in addition to their profits as drivers, corrupt police receive quite handsome benefits for their twisted collaboration.

Brokers, on the other hand, receive a mere 1.5-2% commission on the victims they purchase – roughly 2-3,000 baht ($60-95 USD) – giving them good incentive to keep their quota high, employing whatever means they deem necessary for such results. Incidentally, this places the average price paid to families in exchange for one of their relatives at around 10-20,000 baht ($310-625 USD), roughly the cost of a television. Plainly, the practice of not only applying prices but low prices for the purchase and enslavement of a human being is consistent with the disregard for human life implicit in the concept and practice of human trafficking.

With the ensemble present and its motives clear, the question then becomes, what can we do to overcome it? While there’s probably not one simple solution, there’re many possible methods we can employ to at least reduce, if not altogether eradicate, human trafficking. One method is that chosen by DEPDC/GMS: provide as much education and protection to as many at-risk children as possible. This improves children’s prospects for gainful employment, enhancing their chances of escaping the poverty cycle and thus also of escaping the specter of human trafficking. Further, the security provided by safe daytime schooling and accommodation when required places an immediate obstacle between at-risk children and the traffickers looking to enslave and exploit them, creating an added dimension of protection. This is wonderfully effective, as DEPDC/GMS has shown by its work since 1989. This isn’t, however, the limit of what we can do.

Assuming, as I’d choose to do, that people are fundamentally moral and would prefer to see justice prevail on criminals, raising public awareness of, and popular opposition to, crimes and injustices can be central to bringing an end to abominations such as child exploitation. This requires that we corral support for decent causes, making use of democracy to force powerful states to place enough pressure on traffickers that it’s no longer worth their while to enslave others for profit. Such is, or at least ought to be, our democratic right that elected leaders must follow our demands or else we can find replacements that will. This path, like the others, isn’t an easy or a quick one, requiring commitment and enthusiasm to organize the public so that it can impose its will upon powerful states, but it;s nonetheless among our most important and fundamental weapons in the fight against injustices.

There’re still many other strategies, ranging from large, complex ones such as those above, to smaller everyday actions which, if done by many people, can also accomplish significant change. For the purposes of now, though, let’s consider just a few. First, making regular donations to NGOs, not only in the wake of natural disasters and man-made atrocities, even if individually they seem inconsequential. Second, utilising social media to disseminate information that’ll help to raise awareness of events which may otherwise remain little known and far removed from the realm of influence and decision making. This’ll help develop the foundations of popular support on which movements for justice are built, and is particularly significant for raising awareness of events in poor areas which rarely penetrate national, let alone international, mainstream media. And third, simply keeping apprised of goings on abroad is a personal task of great importance, since it ‘s the critical foundation from which all other initiatives spring.

If ordinary people gradually commit to such measures, basic as they are, awareness would be raised and eventually translated into action. This is, as history shows, the most crucial means by which people have engineered a better future, as all of humankind’s momentous victories have emerged from humble origins and exceptional diligence. Therefore, the problem is clear, the culprits are known, and the tools of change are within people’s grasp – all we require is the will to pursue them, which, if we choose, we can slowly create.


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