Shan women become victims of trafficking in Thailand

14 December 2017

The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people has recently been exposed by the media, finally mounting pressure on the international community to confront the unacceptable violent campaign by Burma’s security forces. Meanwhile, ethnic groups on the other side of the country are suffering in silence, with essential international aid which they are dependent on, being withdrawn.

The people from Shan State are one of the groups whom have suffered exceptionally similar atrocities to the Rohingya people. Like the Rohingya situation in Bangladesh, the Shan people are not recognised as refugees in Thailand. As a result, they lack legal status, livelihood opportunities and access to United Nations aid. The Shan are thus forced to enter Thailand’s unskilled labour market as migrant workers, exposing them to appalling exploitation and abuse. For (mostly impoverished) Shan women and girls, this has meant being lured to Thailand by the false promises of well-paid jobs and then being forced into trafficking and prostitution.

The Thai government must recognise Shan people as refugees and offer them humanitarian assistance if this is to stop and if it wants to adhere to international law. As Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch pointed out “there is little doubt they deserve refugee protection, given the situation on the ground in Shan state, where the Burma Army has continuously committed attacks and other human rights violations.”



Since fighting between the Burmese army and various insurgent groups started over 50 years ago, people have been migrating to Thailand in hope of a better life. In Shan State the Army has tyrannically detained and tortured civilians from ethnic minorities. It is estimated that over 100,000 refugees from Shan and other border states have fled to camps in Thailand. As unofficial refugees without sufficient language skills and understanding of their rights under Thai law, they are systematically exploited by employers, being underpaid and forced to work in unsafe conditions.


Trafficking of women

On the back of this, Shan women and girls such as “Lin Lin” are coaxed into a cycle of trafficking, forced labour and prostitution in Thailand, and even have to pay a fee to an “agent” for the opportunity. They are caught in “debt-bondage”, promising to provide personal services as repayment for a debt, when the value of these services do not correlate with said debt. Being controlled by their employer’s puts them in added danger of being turned over to the local police and arrested under the Thai Immigration Act and immediately deported if they protest or refuse demands. The Thai Immigration Act is also used to guarantee compliance by the Shan once they are in Thailand. This is particularly true in the case of females trafficked into prostitution, who are almost all known by border guards and police. They often cannot even leave the brothels because of their debt to the owner and because they fear being arrested as illegal immigrants and sent back home.


Thailand and International Law

Thai government officials are complicit in these violations both by direct involvement in the brothels and through failure to enforce Thailand’s obligations under both national and international law. Although Thailand has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is still subject to international laws and humanitarian standards, which it is failing to uphold in its treatment of the Shan asylum seekers and the trafficking of Shan women.

The principle of non-refoulement is a part of customary international law, arguably a peremptory norm of international law, and the cornerstone of refugee protection. It states that no refugee should be returned to any country where he or she is likely to face persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group. Although unofficial, it has become an intrinsic part of the accepted conduct in the international community and should be respected by all States, even if they have not signed the 1951 Convention. The Shan people are unquestionably likely to face persecution on the above grounds, and therefore non-refoulement must apply to these asylum seekers as well as those groups determined to be refugees, at least during the period in which no comprehensive refugee status determination procedure exists.

Thailand’s obligations in refugee law terms also stem from international human rights treaties that it has ratified. These are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Wom­­­­en (CEDAW). Thailand’s responsibilities under these treaties extend to all those within its jurisdiction, without discrimination of any kind. Shan refugees have been denied basic human rights by their own government. They are entitled to the same fundamental rights and freedoms as the citizens of the host country and to protection of their rights by the host government. It is important to note that these treaties require state parties not only to refrain from action which violates the rights contained in the conventions but also in some cases to take positive measures to ensure full respect of those rights.



Thailand should not discriminate against particular groups, but provide equal opportunities for all asylum seekers and refugees. The government must offer protection to Shan civilians along the border by allowing them to cross into Thailand, and providing them with adequate documents and access to refugee camps. Similarly, the international community needs to address the recent influx of Shan asylum seekers to Thailand and pressure the government as well as the Burmese military to respect their obligations under international human rights law. If not, the trafficking, forced labour and prostitution of Shan women will continue to increase.

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