WeChat is an effective tool for NGOs in the fight against human trafficking. It provides a communication lifeline to women and girls deserted by the Burmese government.
Seng Moon was 13-years-old when her family fled violence in Kachin State, Myanmar, in 2011. When she turned 16, her sister-in-law informed her of a job opportunity in neighbouring Yunnan province in China. As they set off on their journey to China, Seng Moon told Human Rights Watch how her sister gave her something to help with car sickness which caused her to fall asleep immediately.
“When I woke up, my hands were tied behind my back,” she recounts. “My sister-in-law left me at the home… the family took me to a room. In that room I was tied up again,” she said. “They locked the door for one or two months… Each time when the Chinese man bought me meals, he raped me.”
Seng Moon’s story is typical of the estimated 7,500 women and girls from Kachin and Shan states that were trafficked across the border and sold to Chinese men between 2013 and 2017.
China’s decades-long one-child policy has left the country with 34 million more men than women. Chinese men in rural areas with little social mobility are deemed undesirable to Han Chinese women. Some of these men resort to buying trafficked brides in the hope they will give them children that can care for them in their old age.
Traffickers are trading in desperation
In Myanmar, where armed conflict has displaced larges segments of the populations in Kachin and Shan States, many women are looking for ways to support their families. Traffickers promise women lucrative jobs over the border in China. When they agree, they are sold into sexual slavery.
Other times, family members will broker the sale of the victims, who are sometimes sold for US$15,000. With daughters unable to say no to their elders, they are left with no choice but to go ahead with the sale.
The border between Myanmar and China spans over 3,000 miles. Trafficking the women across the border without documentation is easy. Several victims recalled that there were no guards on duty at the border and entering China was as simple as crossing a shallow river bed. Those that do encounter guards get no assistance. Burmese and Chinese officials are sometimes complicit in the trafficking and corruption is rife.
Once in China, victims tell similar stories of incarceration and rape
For the recent Human Rights Watch report, Heather Barr interviewed 37 victims from Kachin State who had been trafficked to China as forced brides. They told similar stories of incarceration and rape. Several were explicitly told that they could leave as soon as they had delivered a child.
Others were forced to work inside the home or out in the fields. Many reported physical and emotional abuse.
WeChat represents a lifeline
Authorities in both Myanmar and China have been ineffective at providing assistance to victims of human trafficking. Marip Lu, who was trafficked to Henan province in China, reported her situation to the Chinese authorities. She told police: “Someone sold me to this Chinese family,” adding, “I’m terrified of these people.” Despite her report, she was returned to the Chinese family that bought her and no further action was taken.
Several victims that escaped their captors and turned themselves over to Chinese police reported being jailed for immigration violations. Some victims reported that they had received assistance from the Chinese police but Marip Lu’s story, and many others, demonstrates that human trafficking is not taken seriously enough by Chinese authorities.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are attempting to fill the void left by the Chinese and Burmese police. Marip Lu was able to obtain a phone and reached out to Myu Shayi, a women’s organisation in Myanmar. A representative from Myu Shayi instructed her to install WeChat and send them her location. From this, the group arranged for a driver to pick Marip Lu up and orchestrated a clandestine escape from her captors.
Another victim, May Khine Oo, was able to contact a student group through WeChat. They were able to help her flee.
White Charity Group carries out rescues of trafficked Burmese women in China. The group has connected with around 50 women in the last two years. It uses the messaging app to retrieve the women’s locations, then arranges for a driver to pick them up and bring them back to the border.
Its founder, Tun Tun, started the charity after receiving a message from a Burmese woman in China. It read: “I’m in trouble, I’ve been sold,” before pleading, “help me!”
The woman was messaging anyone she could find in Myanmar in the hope that someone could find her family. Tun Tun went to the police and tried to find her family but the woman suddenly stopped responding. He was unable to get her out.
The app is valuable to human trafficking victims, not only for its use as a communication tool, but also because it can be used to transfer money to victims and pay for travel arrangements.
Despite its landmark Anti-Trafficking Law in 2005, the US State Department downgraded Myanmar’s human trafficking rating to Tier three, the lowest possible. Few provisions to protect victims are enforced and prosecutions on human trafficking charges are rare.
The victims have been let down by the Burmese government at every step. From an inability to end the violence in Kachin and Shan States to inadequate support for displaced families and insufficient resources devoted to finding and rescuing trafficked women.
NGOs are attempting to fill the void where the government should be operating but it is no substitution for a government-coordinated effort. The Burmese government must push to bring stability to Kachin and Shan States to reduce the pool of vulnerable women. It must provide pathways to employment for displaced people and raise awareness of human trafficking in displaced communities to prevent it occurring. Without these safeguards, the fate of thousands of Burmese women depends on the hard work and determination of a handful of NGOs operating with limited resources. Even with the help of modern technology, the task is gargantuan.