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In Thailand, a struggle to halt human trafficking

Some say 'rescued' prostitutes may be there voluntarily

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It was a warm and sticky Friday night when investigators swooped into one of this provincial capital's back-street brothels searching for women and children trafficked from neighboring Burma. Within hours the raid was over, and the owner of the brothel was in police custody. Investigators say weeks of surveillance and covert visits paid off: six of the 29 women rescued were minors and more than half had been coerced into their work. But not everyone was relieved.

Local migrant advocacy groups say the Chiang Mai raid, like other actions taken against human trafficking, had netted Burmese women voluntarily engaged in prostitution. Now, they say, those women may be worse off than before.

These groups accuse the US-funded antitrafficking task force that led the raid of steamrolling women's rights and treating all sex workers as victims. "The women didn't feel like they were rescued because they lost their money.... They felt like they were trapped," says Hseng Noung, of the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), who interviewed ethnic Shan women detained in the raid. "Being forced to work physically is one thing, but these women were forced to work by their situation."

As concern mounts over the global scale of human trafficking, which the State Department has called "the emerging human rights issue of the 21st century," the US and other wealthy nations are lending more support to antitrafficking initiatives in countries like Thailand. But the increasing friction between these US- sponsored task forces and the local groups they rely on for information could make it harder for them to root out abuses.

The State Department defines human trafficking as modern-day slavery with victims who are forced, defrauded, or coerced into sexual or labor exploitation. According to their figures, the US has spent more than $100 million on overseas antitrafficking aid since October 2000, when Congress first passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. They estimate that 800,000 to 900,000 people are trafficked annually across international borders - numbers disputed by outside researchers. The United Nation Children's Fund says one-third of global trafficking in women and children happens in Southeast Asia.

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