Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Rescuing Child Sex Slaves

A warm night on the Thai/Burmese border. A Grey Man operative checks his video equipment and heads into a cluster of 15 brothels.

By David Craig for

‘The Grey Man’ is an Australian organisation that uses direct action to rescue the victims of child trafficking and sex slavery, reports David Craig

A warm night on the Thai/Burmese border. A Grey Man operative checks his video equipment and heads into a cluster of 15 brothels. Minutes earlier he had signed off on the raid plan with trusted police officers. Trust is a scarce commodity in these parts – and a necessary one given that one of the brothel owners is a local police sergeant.

Five weeks earlier a Grey Man source had relayed information that girls between the ages of 13 and 17 had been trafficked into one of the brothels (anyone under the age of 18 is considered a minor in Thailand). Grey Man directors gave the go-ahead for an undercover operation to begin. Three underage girls aged 15-17 were identified and covert surveillance was launched.

Operatives talked with the girls and discovered that some had been given false promises of work, only to end up as prostitutes. Although desperate to leave, they had been told by the brothel owner that they owed him for transport costs of 25,000 Thai baht (around $1100). They had been transported from Laos and Burma.

The lead operative, code-named ’99’, arrives at the main underage brothel and asks the mamasan for a young girl. She tells him 500 baht ($22) for an hour. The off-site motel will cost another 150 baht. They discuss the merchandise and money changes hands. She brings out Ya Ya (name changed to protect identity), a pretty 15-year-old who smiles shyly at the operative. This is the face of trafficking.

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Covert video catches every nuance. Meanwhile the police have been moving into the area. Security has been tight, otherwise the brothel would have been empty when ’99’ arrived. As an added precaution, the military has blocked off the streets so no-one can get out. Grey Man operatives are in other brothels waiting for the signal. Everything is in place and ’99’ gives the word. The night explodes with shouting and running.

In total 36 women are rescued this evening, three of them underage (15, 16 and 17). Fifteen traffickers are taken into custody. The women are removed to a government shelter for processing and protection. Grey Man personnel ask the police to go easy on the women who have come into sex work voluntarily to support families. They are released, while the trafficked women, thanks to Thailand’s signing of international protocols, will be given counselling and support to testify against their traffickers.

Although life will be better for most of these women, it is a small victory against the menace of trafficking. The slave trade never ended, it simply spread out and was given a different name. According to UNICEF, ‘trafficking’ is ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people, by means of threats, force, coercion or deception’. The UN estimates 1.2 million children a year are trafficked, and large numbers of women.

A worldwide problem

The slaves come from Eastern Europe and Russia, Africa, China, Thailand, Nepal and a host of other impoverished countries, and are generally transported into relatively wealthy ones – from Angola and Mozambique into South Africa, from Eastern into Western Europe, from Nepal into India, and from Burma and Laos into Thailand or Malaysia. North America is far from immune (a recent sweep in Canada found women and children from China, Romania, the Philippines and Moldova), and it is also a growing problem in Australia.

There is internal trafficking, too. Light-skinned Yunnan women from southern China are taken to the rest of China to be sold as brides, southern Sudanese Christians are trafficked to the Muslim north, and Thai ethnic-minority children are sent to Chiang Mai, Bangkok or the resort areas further south. It is a worldwide phenomenon and one that is increasing, but a few rescue organisations have still jumped into this maelstrom.

The International Justice Mission (IJM) is a faith-based organisation based in Washington, DC. It has successfully rescued children and adults from slavery in many countries, benefiting from the staunch support of George W Bush and government funding to the tune of US$1 million a year. Christian beliefs underpin the group’s actions, with potential volunteers vetted accordingly.

By contrast, The Grey Man (www.thegreyman.org) steers clear of any religious affiliations and receives no government support. Started by a former Australian Army special-forces commando in 2004, the Brisbane-based group is smaller than the IJM and operates quietly for the most part. Supported solely by public donations, its prime focus is the rescue of children, with funds spent exclusively on rescue or education projects. Its volunteer operatives are former police officers and ex-special forces personnel, well-used to overcoming obstacles in the field.

However, as Grey Man director Russell Hawksford points out, the obstacles the organisation encounters are as often bureaucratic as operational.

‘In Thailand we face police corruption and slow action, but in Australia we have difficulties because our money goes overseas. The government doesn’t like that [public money related to trafficking is reserved for home-based organisations like the Anti-Slavery Project and the Scarlet Alliance], so they have rejected our application for tax-exemption status and AusAID will take six months to decide whether to make us a DGR [deductible gift recipient] organisation, which will allow donations to us to be tax deductible.

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‘AusAID classes a lot of what we do in the villages as “welfare”, but they don’t seem to get it – that sending children to school is the best way to ensure their future and make them self-sufficient.’

Despite the difficulties, Hawksford is optimistic about the future, and The Grey Man has plans to expand into many countries neighbouring Thailand.

But while that is encouraging, it doesn’t change that fact that these organisations are like the boy with his finger in the dyke. The forces they are up against are immense, with people-trafficking one of the top three money-spinners for organised crime, along with drugs and guns.

It can start with a simple ad in a Lithuanian newspaper offering jobs abroad. People searching to escape from poverty are easy prey. Transported across borders, their passports are confiscated and they are told their families will be killed if they do not submit to sex work. They have nowhere to turn. In other countries it may play out differently, but the hope of a better life is always the dangling carrot.

In Thailand and Burma, children from ethnic minority groups are targeted. They are generally uneducated, often only speak their tribal language, do not have citizenship or ID papers and are lured with promises of jobs in the city. A chance to escape poverty for themselves and their families soon becomes a nightmare ride of abuse in which the traffickers threaten, cajole, deceive and beat them until they submit to servicing customers. Transported to a city where they do not speak the language, afraid of the police and unsure how to get home, they are trapped.

Nor is trafficking entirely the province of international crime rings. In South-East Asia, small-scale operations abound – and it is not unusual for friends of the family, aunts and uncles or even parents to traffic children. Sometimes corrupt police, government officials and businesspeople are also involved. Drugs can also play a part, as addiction to ya ba (amphetamines) or opium can lead to the sale of children by their parents to feed their addiction.

AFP office closed

The Australian government has made a commitment to combat trafficking, yet despite pursuing a number of trafficking and child sex cases, the Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) main focus in Thailand appears to be drugs. Moreover, given that trafficking invariably starts in the border areas, the decision to shut down the AFP office in Chiang Mai in the north of the country, transferring all its work to Bangkok, is a strange one.

According to local journalist Anthony Cushing, the AFP presence will be sorely missed, as the Thai police aren’t trusted by anyone. However, the federal government looks unlikely to change its mind, with Bob Debus, Minister for Home Affairs, citing the ‘changing operational environment [and] high demand for AFP resources elsewhere internationally’ as the reasons, while promising that the AFP’s Bangkok office would ‘continue to provide effective law enforcement representation in the region’.

Founder of The Grey Man, John Curtis, is surprisingly sympathetic to the government’s position, while utterly unapologetic when it comes to the path
his group follows:

‘We are one of the few organisations that does rescue and it may seem like it makes little difference and other mainstream aid organisations will criticise “rescue” for not solving the problem, but try telling a child in a brothel to wait until we solve “the problem”.

‘The government has too many things on its plate. It is up to individuals and organisations like ours, supported by Australians, to take the initiative. We may not win the war, but there are a lot of children with a better prospect in life because of us.’

David Craig is an undercover Grey Man operative. His name has been changed.


Name: Fa (not her real name)

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Age: 13

From: northern Thailand

Fa is a member of the Akha hill tribe. A man came to her village and offered her family a US$200 loan that Fa would pay back from the job he would give her. Fa, driven by a strong sense of duty to family, went with the man along with three other girls. She was taken by truck to a distant city and introduced to a brothel owner, a Burmese woman.

She wanted to leave, but the brothel owner told her she owed 15,000 baht ($660) and would have to have sex with many customers to pay back the money. Fa tried to sneak away that night, but she was scared because she didn’t even know where she was. She was caught and beaten, and soon after brought to face her first customer. On refusing to have sex with the man, Fa was beaten again. This continued for three days until, exhausted and in pain, she gave in and had sex with a customer.

The Grey Man rescued Fa two months later and because her time in the brothel was relatively brief, there is hope for her recovery. She was taken to a private shelter, where she was given counselling and medical treatment, schooling and vocational training at a beauty college. She seems happy but quiet. The brothel owner will front court in the near future and Fa will be called on to testify anonymously.


Major Jareewan Puttanura is a member of the Thai Police Women and Child Protection Unit. A dedicated officer, she is proud of the advances her unit has made, particularly in the way trafficked children are interviewed once rescued. In the past, a trafficker could sit next to a child being interviewed and pressure them to change their story. Now the child is interviewed in a secure room and the interview is videotaped for court proceedings.

Dual Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sompop Jantraka has spent the last 20 years working to protect children, with his Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Community Centres (DEPDCC) helping over 1000 children.

‘Recruitment for prostitution has become pervasive amongst the rural villages where prostitution of their children becomes a way for the villagers to survive,’ Jantraka reveals.

Perhaps surprisingly, Western child-sex tourists are not the main clients of these children. ‘Seventy per cent of the customers are Thai, who have a belief that young girls are less likely to have AIDS,’ Jantraka says. ‘Not true, of course, but with the high incidence of HIV/AIDS, it is wishful thinking on their part and a common belief here.’

Kru Nam runs a government shelter tucked away among small farms an hour’s drive from the Thai/Burmese border town of Mae Sai. Of the 65 children in her care, 30 per cent are there as a result of sex trafficking, with an equal number there due to labour trafficking and the remainder in the shelter because of sexual or physical abuse, often as a result of drug addiction, within their families.