Covid-19: a catalyst for (online) sex trafficking in Thailand?

Pattaya, one of the infamous sex capitals of the world, only 100 miles away from Bangkok, Thailand. The once so bustling city has been abandoned by its tourists and is at the edge of economic collapse facing Thailand’s strict travel ban due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Figure 1. The famous walking street of Pattaya before the Covid-19 virus, by ToastToThailand.com (2018)

Figure 2. A bit further up the same walking street in Pattaya during the covid-19 pandemic, by Milnes, P. (2020).

Down from 1.5 million in January 2020, Pattaya has only received about 26,000 visitors during the same period in 2021.[1] This dramatic downturn shows just how much Pattaya depends on its tourism industry. As a result, the livelihood of the people in the city has changed significantly, one of the locals stating “Our organisation has halted business 100 per cent. Pattaya is a tourist city, we rely mostly on them. The whole city is affected by the virus”.[2]

Currently, only about a quarter of the usually packed go-go bars, karaoke stalls and nightclubs are open but mainly empty, the city’s beaches are deserted.[3] The few remaining customers are Western expats and domestic travellers from Bangkok. This all stands in sharp contrast to a typical night one year ago, when the streets were always brightly lighted, filled with people, many of which were scarcely dressed women waiting for a rich passer-by.

Figure 3. A common sight throughout Pattaya; an empty go-go bar, by Joyce, A. (2021).

Within Thailand, Pattaya is known as a hotspot for sex tourism attracting many Western and Chinese tourists.[4] Still, it has to be stated that most of the prostitution in Thailand, however, is fuelled by local demand. It has been estimated that 95% of Thai man have gone to local brothels (although this number appears exaggerated it does hint at the scope of this problem).[5] Prostitution is so predominant in Thai society that it is not expected that local demand will decrease due to the Covid-19 virus, yet in the touristic sex hotspots the story is radically different.

In Pattaya, only 35% of the sex visitors are locals.[6] Even though there is little known about Pattaya’s number of sex workers, estimates have been made by NGOs ranging from 27,000 to 30,000.[7] The number stands in relation to an estimated 144,000 to 244,000 active sex workers all over Thailand.[8] Not rarely, sex work in the area is linked to human trafficking. Many workers are stated to experience violence, to struggle with psychological trauma as well as being at high risk of catching sexual transmitting diseases such as HIV and AIDS.[9]

  • Local Thai 35% 35%
  • Chinese 18% 18%
  • Russian 6% 6%
  • Korean 4% 4%
  • Indian 3% 3%
  • German 3% 3%
  • Other 31% 31%

Figure 4. Visitors of Pattaya in 2016, adjusted from Fredrickson, T. (2017) 

Despite the risks involved, to many people the industry offers a way out of poverty and provide for their families.[10] As one 35-year old sex worker in the city said “everyone is here to make a living”.[11] Unfortunately, not all these riches have remained with the workers. Instead, traffickers commonly confiscate most of their victims’ earnings leaving many trafficked sex workers in debt bondage and no way out.[12]

Now the question arises: what happens with all these workers who have nothing left without the income generated from selling sex to tourists? Also, with regard to the economic downturn in Thailand; is it likely that more people will be driven into the hands of human traffickers?

Before we continue, it is important to understand the human trafficking process and its relation to sex trafficking. Human trafficking refers to the trade of human beings for the purpose of exploitation.[13] It is often described as a process of four stages: sourcing, transporting, exploiting, and reintegrating. Human trafficking is a worldwide phenomenon and involves and effects all countries to a certain extent.

Many of the illegal human trafficking networks in South East Asia have been active since the Vietnam war in the 70s during which Pattaya served as a Rest and Recreation centre for U.S. soldiers.[14] This background has led to sex trafficking being the predominant form of human trafficking in Thailand.

Figure 5. The distribution of trafficking cases in Thailand between 2008 and 2011, adjusted from The Royal Thai Police and the Department of Special Investigation, (2012)

Many victims in Thailand are known to travel to cities by their own in search of employment opportunities and end up in exploitative working conditions. As in every other context, sex trafficked victims have to be differentiated from voluntary sex workers. Victims of sex trafficking are usually presented by the most vulnerable groups.[15] In Thailand, the vast majority of victims are girls and women, especially those of marginalized groups. Also, given the social and economic inequalities within South-East Asia, victims predominantly derive from rural areas whereas exploitation takes place in rather densely populated urban spaces, such as Pattaya.[16] Being more economically advanced than some of its neighbouring countries, Thailand, in particular, attracts people from neighbouring countries such as Laos and Cambodia. This sense of migration is fuelled by the common believe of (rural) Thai people that the oldest child is expected to take care of the family. A great burden in a country that has limited social insurance, and rural areas where wages are sometimes as low as around 4500 baht (or 120 euros) per month.[17]

It is the poverty and aspiration for a better life which lets many victims fall for the industry. Coercion typically only starts later in the process. After the identification of a victim, a trafficker often offers him or her an appealing job somewhere else. Sadly, however, most of the victims that fall prey to this injustice are tricked by their own relatives and family.[18]  After all, who would say no to a chance for a better life; a real job where you can earn an honest wage, the first time visiting a new country, and housing arranged by people you trust. All you need to do is to cross the border, even the visa has been arranged.

Here, Covid-19 has the potential to play into the hands of global trafficking organizations. Due to the socio-economic effects of the pandemic and the closure of the country to (foreign) visitors, more than 8.3 million workers are expected to lose their job, and the economically unsure in Thailand are expected to double towards 9.7 million people.[19] Many voluntary sex workers have no other option than to return to the countryside and help their families with farm work. Back home, without previous means of support and no qualification for the governmental emergence relief, they often find themselves in situations of economic despair vulnerable to trafficking practices.[20] 

Figure 6. The major flows of Sexworkers and human trafficking networks with Thailand as a destination and transfer country. Artwork adjusted from artwork by

Figure 7. The major flows of Sexworkers and human trafficking networks with pre-covid-19 flows in Black and in green the flow during the pandemic. The question arises, what happens with the people highlighted in green that cannot go home? Artwork adjusted from artwork by

As an attempt to save their businesses, several bar owners in Pattaya have implemented new business models by taking sex services online.[21] Some let customers chat online with bar staff hoping for viewers to buy them drinks as usual but via PayPal. Other bars have closed entirely and moved their entire services offered by sex workers online.

Sexual intended actions in a virtual environment with the use of computer technology, is known as virtual sex or cybersex.[22] It covers sexting, selling nude pictures, live sexual performances, pre-recorded sex clips and much more.[23] According to the Thai police, “cybersex predators (are) exploiting the new coronavirus crisis to target more children”.[24] Traffickers use hunting and fishing strategies to recruit victims, fishing being the dominant strategy.[25]

Figure 8. Online exploitation is often less visible and more difficult to combat than other types of exploitation such as prostitution. Artwork by the International Justice Mission (2021)

But just like with real-life sex industry, people enter the cybersex scene voluntarily[26] or are being lured into it.[27] An example of the latter one is grooming. When trust and an emotional connection is built, exploitative services by the victim can be advertised online and with the use of cameras[28], online (child) sexual abuse material is being collected. This material can be distributed on other online platforms, without the victim knowing it.[29] However, cybersex is not just limited to the virtual world.[30] It can easily lead to real life meetings between the victim and the customer or exploiter.

Some significant differences can be identified between cybersex and ‘real-life’ sex exploitation.  First of all, cybersex has no geographical limitations and hence targets a much larger audience.[31] Another result of global range is the decrease of low and peak hours, making the utilization of trafficked victims more profitable for the trafficker. Then there is the workplace, it seems obvious that cybersex does not require a fixed position or workplace. Although it appears to be virtuous for the victims of the industry since they are unable to get sexually transmitted diseases and physical abuse from their customers. On the other hand, victims are much less likely to be noticed or saved if they can be operating virtually everywhere as opposed to one of the busiest streets of Thailand. Lastly, due to the nature of the internet, victims are much more likely to be recorded and run the risk of being discovered after they have been saved from the hands of traffickers.

Cybersex exploitation is hard to combat due to multiple reasons. First, in an online environment it is easy to hide your identity. Besides that, the offenders are making use of anonymous platforms, such as the darknet.[32] This makes it hard to identify and investigate them. Secondly, because the exploiter may blackmail the victims with hard copies of the victim’s sexual actions[33], the victim can be restrained to press charges. Lastly, it can be particularly difficult to investigate or prosecute online sexual offenders when offender and victims are situated in different countries since authorisation by the home country is needed.[34] The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development concluded that around 20% of the countries worldwide has not yet implemented cybercrime legislation.[35]

Figure 9. The status is of the adoption of cybercrime legislation globally. Adjusted from UNCTAD. (n.d.)

The shift towards digitalization has allowed for a lucrative global business model for traffickers, as stated by Europol “livestreaming is becoming mainstream”.[36] The developments towards an ever increasing online environment require active legislation and prosecution. Considering the scope, it is vital that this is done cooperatively on global, regional and nation levels.

The only Thai response to online exploitation is the Thai Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (TICAC) which focusses on a part of those that are at risk.[37] According to the Thai police, “cybersex predators (are) exploiting the new coronavirus crisis to target more children”.[38] A surge in online sex abuse has been recorded during Covid-19. Still, there are significant improvements needed to halt this type of trafficking; grooming, for example, is currently not illegal by Thai law. This is best summarised by Wirawan Mosby, the director of an anti-child-trafficking NGO, “Having such high figures is not something to be proud of, and law enforcement is not solving the problem at the root cause”.

Figure 10. The internet facilitated child sex trafficking cases investigated, adjusted from U.S. Department of State (2020) and U.S. Department of State. (2021) 

To conclude, prostitution is still illegal in Thailand. This results in a bad situation for the sex workers. The Thai government has announced a stimulus packages to mitigate this impact. Yet since commercial sex is illegal in Thailand many people will be at significant risk of falling in the hands of human traffickers[39]. On one hand, they are not receiving the much-needed compensation that other legal workers are receiving whereas their income is highly dependent on tourism. On the other hand, the workers are not able to legally transition into covid friendly alternatives such as online streaming. These people are pressed towards illegal alternatives often coordinated through human traffickers. With international borders closed, illegal migrants are more prone to being trafficked whereas the people already caught in the trafficking system are more isolated.

Looking forward, it seems unlikely that trafficked sex workers will completely transition to the digital alternative, yet it is known that this type of exploitation is there to stay. The legal environment of Thailand has ill provided its sex workers, driving them into the hands of human traffickers whilst isolating the current victims of human traffickers. Likewise, in the aftermaths of the Covid-19 pandemic, more people are expected to be at risk of being trafficked. Without the protection of these vital groups, it seems evident that post- Covid-19 Pattaya’s streets will be filled with trafficked victims again, some of which switching towards an online profession during the daytime.

Sources

[1]  Meechukhun, N. (2021, March 10). Pattaya’s number of tourists plummets 99% since start of January, caused by new wave of Covid-19 domestic outbreak, border closures. Tpnnational. Pattaya’s number of tourists plummets 99% since start of January, caused by new wave of Covid-19 domestic outbreak, border closures – TPN National News

[2] Reuters. (2020, March 29). Pattaya suffers near-total devastation from Covid-19. https://www.nst.com.my/world/world/2020/03/579281/pattaya-suffers-near-total-devastation-covid-19

[3] Amendral, A. (2021, February 3). How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand’s Sex Workers. NPR. How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand’s Sex Workers (npr.org)

[4] Prostitution in Thailand: Ananya Guha Roy International Journal of Engineering and Management Research 2017 ISSN (ONLINE): 2250-0758, ISSN (PRINT): 2394-6962

[5] Fredrickson, T. (2017, September 15). 8 million tourists visit Pattaya in first half. Bankgkok Post. 8 million tourists visit Pattaya in first half (bangkokpost.com)

[6] Thaiger. (2020, October 27). Pattaya – fighting to survive its Covid crisis. Pattaya – fighting to survive its Covid crisis | Thaiger (thethaiger.com)

[7] Janyam, S., Phuengsamran, D., Pangnongyang, J., Saripra, W., Jitwattanapataya, L., Songsamphan, C. (2020). Protecting sex workers in Thailand during the COVID-19 pandemic: opportunities to build back better. WHO South-East Asia Journal of Public Health, 9(2), 100-103. seajph2020v9n2p100-eng.pdf (who.int)

[8] Lines, L. (2015). Prostitution in Thailand: Representations in Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 16(3), 86-100. Prostitution in Thailand: Representations in Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction (capstoneediting.com.au)

[9] Amendral, A. (2021, February 3). How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand’s Sex Workers. NPR. How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand’s Sex Workers (npr.org)

[10] Tostevin, M. (2017, March26). Sex in Thai city frustrates junta. Reuters. Sex in Thai city frustrates junta | Reuters

[11] Roujanavong, W. (2012). Human Trafficking: A Challenge to Thailand and the World Community. United Nations Asia and Far East Institute. No87_11VE_Wanchai.pdf (unafei.or.jp)

[12] UNODC. (2020). Trafficking in Persons Report 20th edition. United Nations. 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report (state.gov)

[13] Nuttavithisit, K. (2007). Branding Thailand: Correcting the negative image of sex tourism. Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 3(1), 21-30. 10.1057/palgrave.pb.6000045.pdf (springer.com)

[14] The Royal Thai Police and the Department of Special Investigation. (2012). Number of cases of trafficking investigated, by form of exploitation, 2008-2011. Microsoft Word – Country Profiles South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific.doc (unodc.org)

[15] UNODC. (2020). Trafficking in Persons Report 20th edition. United Nations. 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report (state.gov)

[16] Taywaditep, K. J., Coleman, E., Dumronggittigule, P. (n.d.). Thailand. Internet Archive. The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (archive.org)

[17] United Nations Thematic Working Group on Migration in Thailand. (2019). Thailand Migration Report 2019. https://www.unicef.org/thailand/media/1801/file/Thailand%20Migration%20Report%202019%20(High%20resolution).pdf

[18] Tanakasempipat, P. (2016, July 17). Thai sex industry under fire from tourism minister, police. Reuters. Thai sex industry under fire from tourism minister, police | Reuters

[19] United Nations Thematic Working Group on Migration in Thailand. (2019). Thailand Migration Report 2019. https://www.unicef.org/thailand/media/1801/file/Thailand%20Migration%20Report%202019%20(High%20resolution).pdf

[20] The World Bank Group. (2020, June 30). Major Impact from COVID-19 to Thailand’s Economy, Vulnerable Households, Firms: Report [Press release]. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/06/30/major-impact-from-covid-19-to-thailands-economy-vulnerable-households-firms-report

[21] Amendral, A. (2021, February 3). How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand’s Sex Workers. NPR. How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand’s Sex Workers (npr.org)

[22] Thaiger. (2020, October 27). Pattaya – fighting to survive its Covid crisis. Pattaya – fighting to survive its Covid crisis | Thaiger (thethaiger.com)

[23] Young, K. (2017, June 29). Help for Cybersex Addicts and Their Loved Ones. Technology and Society. https://technologyandsociety.org/help-for-cybersex-addicts-and-their-loved-ones/#:~:text=Cybersex%20can%20be%20defined%20as,another%20person%20via%20the%20Internet.&text=Cybersex%20no%20longer%20seems%20to,act%20that%20must%20be%20completed.

[24] Jessiesage. (2020, May 26). Online Sex Work During the Pandemic. The Society Pages. https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2020/05/26/online-sex-work-during-the-pandemic/

[25] Wongsamuth, N. (2020, June 18). Online child sex abuse in Thailand nears record high with coronavirus. Thomson Reuters Foundation. https://news.trust.org/item/20200618161543-qb4ra

[26] UNODC. (2021). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020. GLOTiP_2020_15jan_web.pdf (unodc.org)

[27] Amendral, A. (2021, February 3). How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand’s Sex Workers. NPR. How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand’s Sex Workers (npr.org)

[28] Wongsamuth, N. (2019, June 17). Thai police say cybersex traffickers targeting boys from wealthy families. Thomson Reuters Foundation. Thai police say cybersex traffickers targeting wealthy boys (trust.org)

[29] UNODC. (2021). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020. GLOTiP_2020_15jan_web.pdf (unodc.org)

[30] Jessiesage. (2020, May 26). Online Sex Work During the Pandemic. The Society Pages. https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2020/05/26/online-sex-work-during-the-pandemic/

[31] Kim, R. (2018, July 30). Four Dangers of Involving in Cyber Sex. Infidelity Recovery Institute. Four Dangers of Involving in Cyber Sex – The Infidelity Recovery Institute

[32] UNODC. (2021). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020. GLOTiP_2020_15jan_web.pdf (unodc.org)

[33] ECPAT International. (2016). Online child sexual exploitation. What is online child sexual exploitation? – ECPAT International

[34] Kim, R. (2018, July 30). Four Dangers of Involving in Cyber Sex. Infidelity Recovery Institute. Four Dangers of Involving in Cyber Sex – The Infidelity Recovery Institute

[35] Anthony. (2020, January 6). Why Is It So Hard To Catch Cybercriminals? TMB. Why Is It So Hard To Catch Cybercriminals? (tmb.co.uk)

[36] Europol. (2020). Internet: Organized Crime Threat Assessment. European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation. internet_organised_crime_threat_assessment_iocta_2020.pdf

[37] Government of Thailand. (2021). Royal Thai Government’s Country Report on Anti-Human Trafficking Efforts. (1 January – 31 December 2020). Thailand-country-report-on-anti-trafficking-efforts-2020-FINAL-1-Feb-2020.pdf (thaianti-humantraffickingaction.org)

[38] Wongsamuth, N. (2020, June 18). Online child sex abuse in Thailand nears record high with coronavirus. Thomson Reuters Foundation. https://news.trust.org/item/20200618161543-qb4ra

[39] Janyam, S., Phuengsamran, D., Pangnongyang, J., Saripra, W., Jitwattanapataya, L., Songsamphan, C. (2020). Protecting sex workers in Thailand during the COVID-19 pandemic: opportunities to build back better. WHO South-East Asia Journal of Public Health, 9(2), 100-103. seajph2020v9n2p100-eng.pdf (who.int)

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