CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Filled with enchanting Buddhist temples within lush jungles and picturesque elephant encounters, Thailand is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. However, this has not been the experience of Matthew Trengove, a missionary with the Elijah Foundation who has his own perspective. Trengove’s understanding of Thailand is deeply rooted in his personal encounters with displaced children who come from Thailand’s northwestern neighbor, Myanmar. These children, neglected by Myanmar and ignored by Thailand, comprise the majority of the residents of Mango House, an orphanage in Chiang Mai established by the Elijah Foundation.
Thailand is currently home to more than 103 thousand Myanmar refugees, many of whom fled ethnic conflict and human rights violations. Organizations have documented mistreatment in Thailand’s commercial sectors, factories, farms and especially its offshore fishing industry. Labor rights campaigners are punished under criminal defamation and computer crime laws, arguably putting speech under government control.
However, in June 2016, Myanmar’s state chancellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, campaigned for migrant workers’ rights during a high-profile trip to Thailand. Some organizations, like Ascend Money, offer innovative financial assistance to many refugees. But without a legal right to work, most refugees live with limited access to basic rights, education and healthcare. Hopelessness and poverty are rife in many of Thailand’s nine refugee camps, making refugees vulnerable to exploitation.
In the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, Thailand was recognized for making significant strides to eliminate human trafficking within its borders. Coordinating between the U.S. Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Royal Thai Police, the Thai government opened the first Child Advocacy Center in Chiang Mai, the first of its kind in southeast Asia. Its innovative victim-centered approach is remarkably simple and effective; the center uses recording equipment to prevent re-traumatization of young victims and instills a friendly atmosphere where victims can build trust with investigators away from the intimidating settings of police stations.
However, as evening falls in Chiang Mai, victims as young as eight years old are supplied to meet the market’s demand for children. The State Department explicitly outlines that most victims come from “vulnerable populations, including migrants, stateless persons, children, and refugees.” Myanmese youth are raised in this setting, where such sexual practices have made headwinds into the country’s culture. Trengove says, “We try to reach out to girls earlier than age five. By age seven or eight, they most likely have been sexually abused.”
Trengove, together with his wife, seeks to positively impact his new community for the next couple of years. He has seen it done before by focusing on education, when Mango House helped break the cycle of poverty for one of its children. Now a high school freshman, a young girl from Mango House was recently accepted into Chiang Mai’s top high school. Her security and education keep her safe from illegal traffickers, and studies have found that for every year she is educated, her wages can increase by 10 percent. The cycle stops with her.
After fundraising, Trengove plans to leave in early 2017 for full-time work in Chiang Mai’s Mango House.
– Andy Jung