A woman carries water near a camp for internally displaced people in Kayah State’s Demoso Township on October 18, 2021. (AFP)

Desperate IDPs fall prey to human traffickers

Human trafficking has increased in Myanmar since the coup amid widespread lawlessness and economic stagnation, with those internally displaced by conflict among the most vulnerable.


Nan Mo* was living in a camp for internally displaced people in war-torn Kayah State when she jumped at an opportunity to get a job with a decent salary in Thailand.

“Women living in the IDP camp have few opportunities to make a living inside the country. I decided to work in a neighbouring country to support my family. Illegal agents often visited the IDP camps, promising us decent jobs abroad,” she told Frontier.

“I reached out to one of these agents, who assured me of a good salary working at a massage spa, and that’s how I ended up here.”

Leaving behind her two children, her mother and her aunt, Nan Mo headed to Bangkok, but when she arrived, she was forced to perform sex work to pay off a debt of K3 million (about US$1,500) she had accrued with the agent.

An undocumented migrant without contacts in Thailand and unable to speak the language, Nan Mo had no one to turn for help.

“I thought of running away from here. I thought about committing suicide. I thought about different ways to escape. But my 10-year-old daughter, my six-year-old son and my elderly mother and aunt all depend on me. I had to overcome the difficulties,” she said.

Nan Mo became the sole breadwinner for her family when her husband was killed in battle in May last year. He was a member of the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force, a resistance group formed after the 2021 coup in Kayah to fight against the military junta. She had moved to the IDP camp, but there were no job opportunities to provide for her family there or elsewhere in the state.

“Back then, I had my husband. We had a house with a garden. He grew crops. We weren’t rich but we had regular income, it was okay for us. When the coup happened in 2021, he took up arms and the whole family fled to an IDP camp in Karenni. We got into this situation all because of power-crazed people,” she said, referring to the generals who staged the coup.

With Myanmar’s economy in a free-fall since then and the poverty rate doubling, many have searched for jobs abroad, mostly in China, Malaysia and Thailand.

IDPs are particularly vulnerable to human traffickers like those who ensnared Nan Mo. Many of them have lost their land and livelihoods and live in camps that are sorely underfunded and are often targeted by junta airstrikes.

Maw Pray Myar, spokesperson for the Karenni National Women’s Organization, told Frontier that women in Kayah have traditionally made a living farming or rearing livestock, but conflict has displaced many of them.

“I’m not saying that human trafficking didn’t exist before the coup but I can say it has increased since then. The conflict is ongoing and the junta has stationed its soldiers at IDP camps,” she said. “They burn houses and plant mines near the IDPs’ houses. Locals can’t go back to get food. They live in the jungle and depend on donations. But the revolution is taking a long time and the donations aren’t enough. They are struggling to cover their basic living expenses.”

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are a total of 2 million IDPs in the country, 1.7 million of whom have been displaced since the coup.

The problem is especially pronounced in Kayah, one of the states most battered by the conflict. In February a group of local human rights organisations said in a report that 180,000 people – over 40 percent of the state’s population – have been displaced since the military takeover.

A displaced woman sleeps amid her belongings in Kayah State’s Demoso Township on June 1, 2021, after fleeing clashes between the military and resistance forces. (AFP)

A worsening crisis

Myanmar has long been criticised by the United States for failing to prevent human trafficking, with the country consistently placed in Tier 3 in the annual trafficking in persons reports published by the US Department of State.

Since 2020, Tier 3 has referred to countries with documented government policies or patterns of human trafficking, sexual slavery, forced labour or using child soldiers. The Myanmar military has always been the main culprit of these crimes, and since the coup the regime has created conditions that have pushed more desperate people into the arms of smugglers and traffickers, while making fewer efforts to fight human trafficking.

According to the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, the junta made dramatically fewer efforts to prosecute human trafficking than the overthrown National League for Democracy government. In 2021, the regime reported 158 individual convictions, including cases initiated before the coup, compared to 201 convictions the year before.

The regime is not merely neglecting the problem, but actively participating in it. The International Labour Organization recently reported that the military’s use of forced labour in conflict zones is “ongoing, widespread and systematic” – with captives being used as porters, guides and human shields. Meanwhile, Border Guard Forces under the military’s command are using forced labour in cyber scam operations in Kayin and Shan states.

“The military council cannot do anything to make the citizens safe. They have become the perpetrators. They are an oppressive government and they cannot take care of human trafficking issues,” Maw Pray Myar said. “And it’s getting worse.”

Even in cases where the regime isn’t involved, little effort is put into preventing human trafficking, likely due to corruption and a general breakdown in the rule of law.

“The authorities know that some agents are scamming, but even if they know their address, they don’t go and arrest them. The military council is not taking any action against human trafficking,” Maw Pray Myar said.

Lost in Thailand

Mu Tee*, 20, was baffled when she arrived at a small town in Mae Hong Son province in remote northern Thailand.

“The agent told me that they would send me to Bangkok, where I could get a monthly salary of 15,000 baht [$412]. But instead they sent me to a rural town, where I got a job at a restaurant,” she told Frontier.

With the conflict engulfing her hometown in Kayah’s Demoso Township, where her family owned a farm growing paddy, corn and sesame, she fled with her parents and grandfather to an IDP camp in December 2021. But as the family languished without income, she took out a loan of over K2 million and paid an agent to find her work in Bangkok.

“They’re only paying me a monthly salary of 5,000 baht, claiming that I came in illegally, and told me they deducted the cost of rent and food. They make me do their house chores outside of my working hours. I can only rest for 6 hours a day,” she said.

Ko Banyar, director of the Karenni Human Rights Group, said people like Mu Tee are particularly vulnerable.

“Young people take any job they can get. Some of them contact agents to go abroad illegally. The traffickers don’t have to search for people anymore — people are reaching out to them on their own. Many of them soon realise they’ve been deceived or tricked when they arrive at their destination,” he told Frontier.

With her 80-year-old grandfather and her mother both suffering from heart disease, Mu Tee needs money to send to her family back at the IDP camp in Demoso. And without legal documentation, it’s not easy for her to find another job.

“I can’t send as much money back home as I expected, because I have to cover my expenses. It took me nearly a year of hard work to save enough money to repay my loan. I am holding onto this job as I have to support my ageing parents and my grandfather,” she said.

Maw Pray Myar said before the coup, families could report cases to the Myanmar Anti-Trafficking Police, who would also work with civil society organisations, but now many people don’t trust regime officials.

Ko Banyar said he has also had frustrating experiences with Myanmar embassies abroad.

“Reaching out to embassies hasn’t been easy lately. We can’t get in touch with the labour attachés, they just don’t answer the phone,” he said.

At the same time, a continued crackdown on civil society in Myanmar has left many organisations reluctant to contact local authorities or members of the security forces for help.

“The Human Trafficking Information Networking Group has lost its edge and people are becoming hesitant to reach out. They’ve lost trust in the government, and they’re not sure how safe it is to share information,” said Ko Banyar.

Maw Pray Myar said the end result is that she doesn’t even know how to help trafficking victims anymore.

“I don’t know which organisations to ask for help from. When the Myanmar police are asked to help, they only demand money. I have concerns about my staff’s safety and my organisation’s security. So, even when I want to help those in need, I don’t know how to do it,” she said.

* indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

Khin Hnin Phyu Soe is a freelance journalist from Myanmar.

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