The colourful streets of Chang Mai are bustling. Scooters zip up and down the restaurant-lined street as the smells of mixed spices and curry waft from the small, cluttered kitchens.
The locals are going about their day-to-day business, selling their wares to tourists with money to spend; ferrying bags of fresh produce home from the markets.
Animated school-aged children duck in and out of shopfronts, playing and laughing.
In a cafe, an Australian man sits quietly, surveying the street.
To the unknowing people passing by, he could be a tourist. Or, perhaps an expat who has opted for the simple Thai life.
What they don’t know is that Mike – whose real name can’t be revealed – is an undercover agent working in conjunction with the Australian Federal Police and America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation in a bid to reduce the world’s fastest-growing organised crime.
It may sound like something from the pages of a Hollywood script.
It’s not. Human trafficking is a $40-billion industry.
UNESCO estimates that a new child is trafficked every 26 seconds, while UNICEF estimates there are 21 million people trafficked around the world, many who are sold into sex slavery.
Mike is the international rescue manager for Sunshine Coast-based organisation Destiny Rescue.
Founded in 2001, the group works out of Thailand, India, Cambodia, the Philippines, Laos and the Dominican Republic and aims to bring freedom to children being sold into sexual exploitation and slavery.
The rescued victims are placed into Destiny Rescue rehabilitation programs and housing.
Mike has been living abroad and volunteering full-time for Destiny Rescue since 2011.
He makes no income from the role, has given up a stable lifestyle and witnesses the unimaginable daily. He’s also had a gun pointed at his head.
Yet, the 44-year-old has no plans to throw it in anytime soon.
“I’m a Christian,’’ he says.
“I have a soft spot for kids. I remember at school, 20 years ago, the bullying and seeing it happen to kids.
“It wasn’t nice. I’ve always been moved when I see a kid in trouble. I hate seeing that.
“I hate not being able to have the answer. I need to be hands on.’’
Speaking in hushed tones for fear he may be overheard, Mike explains the process involved with rescuing a child.
It’s harrowing and at times, downright dangerous.
Some young women, who have been placed in brothels, can be extracted easily.
For others, it takes time to build their trust and to build a case to present to authorities who can then conduct a raid.
The crime is thriving in Thailand’s Phuket and Pattaya, which has an estimated 20,000 bars and brothels.
“Our teams go out into the bars and pose as customers. Obviously we don’t do anything,’’ Mike says.
“We start building a case. We get the evidence that the girl is available, find out who takes the money and confirm that she is under 18.
“Then we do video surveillance… where she goes to, how much it costs, who takes the money, where the purchase is being done.
“That’s given to the police. We meet with them and conduct the raid.”
In the past, corruption has negatively impacted raids. However, Destiny Rescue now has a good police team to work with and rescue rates are as high as 80 per cent.
In August, the Destiny Rescue team saved 27 children in a Philippine raid.
But before any good, comes the bad.
“There are terrible things,’’ Mike reveals.
“Last year I went to India, we rescued a four-year-old girl and two eight-year-olds. That sort of thing shocks me.
“Seeing a dead body of a 13-year-old girl who didn’t get the chance to be rescued. Raped, murdered. It puts an urgency to what we do. The longer the girls stay in there, the worse the emergency.
“They (the children) are sold, kidnapped and trafficked. There are a lot of circumstances as to why girls end up in the bars.
“You can never assume she wants to be there. No girl wants to be there.”
Child trafficking is an urgent human rights issue and yet, as Westerners, we continue to turn our back on the issue.
There can be no ignoring the fact that modern slavery exists. It’s estimated that up to 80 per cent of human trafficking and slavery is for sex.
A 2016 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, revealed that 79 per cent of human trafficking victims are women and children.
Alarmingly, UNICEF statistics estimate that a child is prepared for sexual exploitation every two minutes.
The organisation also reports that the International Labor Organisation’s 2002 estimation of 1.2 million children being trafficked each year remains the reference, however this doesn’t include the millions of children already being held captive.
There are some organisations making headway in the fight against trafficking.
The UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016 revealed that the number of countries that criminalise most forms of human trafficking increased from 33 in 2003 to 158 in 2016.
However, with the introduction of national legislation still in its early days, the number of convictions still remains low.
In September 2015, the world adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its targets on human trafficking.
These goals call for an end to trafficking, violence and exploitation of women and girls.
Groups such as Destiny Rescue are also chipping away at the problem and raising awareness about the plight of the world’s children.
Since 2011, 2000 children have been rescued. The organisation has a clear goal: to rescue 100,000 children from the sex industry by the end of the year 2020.
Destiny Rescue CEO Michelle Winser says part of the answer lays in cultural change.
“As I got told, what we do isn’t palatable at the dinner table. We don’t want to think people do these sorts of things. But when the average cost to buy a human life is $90, it’s time to start the conversation,’’ she says.
In Thailand, Australian men are largely contributing to the problem while Thai families are placing their daughters into the industry to combat poverty.
“It’s really sickening when you walk the streets and see,’’ Michelle tells My Weekly Preview.
“I remember walking through the street and talking to a man going into a go go bar, ‘why do you come over here?’. It’s cheap, it’s where you go. They don’t care.
“When we rescue a child in Thailand we have to find their parents and get the parents’ permission for the child to come into our care.
“On the odd occasion the parents say no and we have to take the child back to the brothel. All we can do after that is go back and check on that child.”
Michelle says with no Centrelink or alternative funding, many families have no choice. Either their daughters work or the family starves.
“As a mum, and I’ll never be in that situation, selling a child to feed the other three or four, it must be heartwrenching.
“For us, the main aim is to reintegrate him or her (the rescued child) into society with a trade and their family.
“If the can’t go back to their family, they stay in our care and when they are older we move them into a unit situation with three or four other girls. We teach them here how to buy food, pay rent.”
From Thailand to India, the situations vary dramatically.
Michelle and her team recently returned from India where they spent some time at the Destiny Rescue prevention home.
There are three Indian projects. One of these is a short-term home where children are placed when they are rescued.
“We try to get them back to their parents. If it’s generational prostitution they stay with us,’’ Michelle says. “We become the child’s carer until they are 18.”
These children are relocated to Destiny Rescue’s long-term home – they go to school, have chores, play games. The youngest currently in the organisation’s care is five.
The third project is focused on Delhi’s five major slums, which each house around 50,000 people. There is no financial assistance, no Medicare, no food.
“These parents take their children and send them out to service men throughout the slum to be able to feed the rest of the family,’’ Michelle says.
“What we’ve done is open a project where the girls do a school program then a sewing program. At the end of the day they get a cash wage so they have money.
“I think one thing I learnt in India, the kids are truly slaves in every sense of the word. They have no voice. We need to be a voice for these kids.
“Kids deserve to be safe and laugh, whether they are black or white, purple with red polka dots.
“People ask ‘how much money do you want?’ It’s not about money all the time. It’s about banding together and saying it’s not OK to have sex with kids.
“If we have enough voices, the governments might listen and celebs might stop endorsing the latest Birkin bag and do this instead. Money is good but we need to get a real voice happening.
“For me, when I’m walking the streets at night on rescues, I feel overwhelmed. There are still a lot of kids out there waiting for us.”
For Mike, he will continue to make one rescue at a time, knowing that his own sacrifices are nothing compared to those of child victims.
“One night in Bangkok I was walking to a 7/11 outside my hotel and I saw two girls that I had rescued,’’ he says.
“They went through the program for four years and they remembered me. They were crying on the streets, they gave me a hug.
“They are nurses now. We were able to put them through nursing school.”
How you can help:
Around 83 per cent of Destiny Rescue’s funds come from Australian families.
It costs about $1500 to rescue one child and put them into care, which includes health and counselling sessions. From the rescue to restoring a child, it costs about $6000 a year.
- People can donate online. There is also a pre-tax giving program, which people can set up with their employers.
- Volunteers are also needed for team trips and in-office work on the Sunshine Coast.
- Host a Destiny Rescue jewellery party. The products are made by the rescue girls with funds going back into the organisation.