Thailand. It conjures images of stunning beaches, landscapes, faces. But tearing through its beauty like a jagged knife is a crossroads of human trafficking and prostitution.
Father Adriano Pelosin, a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, spends his time in Bangkok’s slums, rescuing children from sexual violence and helping to keep them away from organised crime.
Catholicism has a relatively small following in Thailand. Of its 67 million-strong population, only 0.5%, or roughly 335,000 people, define themselves as Catholic. But according to Father Pelosin, the Thai church has made important progress in helping to educate locals on the realities of prostitution.
It seems to have worked. Fewer Thai women are prostituting themselves. But the truth is that it’s still a booming market – according to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, it turns over 2.2 billion US dollars a year. And whilst there’s demand, the supply will come from somewhere. That somewhere is Laos, Burma, China, the ex-Eastern Bloc. But people running these businesses – in clubs, karaoke bars, massage centres – remain the same. Europeans. Japanese. Arabs. Russians.
100 kilometres away from Bangkok is Pattaya, workplace for over 200,000 prostitutes. Girls sell their wares at petrol stations, on the beachfront, in bathtubs at the soapy massage parlours, or from behind grids of windows in restaurants. Each of them has a number. The waiters can help with recommendations. Once you’ve made your selection, pay 1,700 Baht (34 euros) and you can go upstairs with your choice for an hour and a half.
Who are the customers? Men, mostly retirement age. But not all of them are satisfied with a mere hour and a half above a restaurant. Some want more – a kind of mini relationship. And so they wander the noisy streets of Pattaya, stomachs bulging under their vest tops, temporary girlfriend – 30 or 40 years their junior – in tow.
Well they do say that love is blind. For Miao, 29, that certainly was the case. She was temporary girlfriend to a German. That is, until he infected her with HIV. After she was admitted to hospital, she never heard from him again. And she didn’t see him either. In fact, she didn’t see anyone – the virus had taken away her sight.
Why do the prostitutes continue to endanger themselves? The choices are limited. Work in a factory, or sell your body. Sell your body but receive free food, a place to stay, and fifteen times more money.
So it’s young bodies for old men. Sunny Soi is where the paedophiles go. HIV goes with them sometimes. But there are locals who make it their mission to stop them, and many have been successfully turned in to the police.
Education is happening; organisations, such as End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking, are moving. And Catholic schools in Thailand, with more than 100,000 students – many of whom aren’t Catholics themselves – continue to raise awareness on the issue. An issue that, whilst occurring in broad daylight, has remained hidden for a long time.