A growing number of Kachin women are being trafficked over the Chinese border as criminal networks target vulnerable populations uprooted by the ongoing civil conflict, humanitarian groups have warned.
Five Kachin women were discovered missing from camps near Majayang last week suspected of being abducted by Chinese trafficking gangs, a spokesperson for Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN) told DVB. Another three are missing from Laying camp in China.
“One woman from the [Majayang] camp told me that she saw a group of Chinese men push a crying woman into the car and take her away,” says May Li Aung from Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN), an NGO providing humanitarian assistance along the border.
Many women are also lured away from their families with a false promise of marriage. A suspected female trafficking agent has been spotted scouring the camps near Majayang and visiting several families with the promise of a Y 6,000 dowry for one of their daughters.
“The agents are very intelligent. In the past they used to visit villages and just offer money to the families through an agent,” says May Li Aung. “Now they have changed strategy. They use our traditions and offer a dowry for their daughters so the parents just think they will be married. But instead they are sold and the family never gets any money.”
Most affected families are ignorant of the problem or live in denial. Sinlum Kaba handed her 22-year old daughter to a Chinese businessman in January. Five months later she is still waiting for the dowry to arrive, but continues to deny the possibility that her daughter is being exploited.
“It’s a very difficult because if we pursue this case we will have to prosecute the mother as well,” says Doi Mai from the Kachin Women’s Association (KWA).
The KWA have recorded about fifty trafficking cases since the start of the conflict, although accurate statistics are becoming harder to obtain.
“People are facing more difficulties and getting poorer so these types of cases are increasing,” says May Li Aung. “But we don’t know exactly how many because we can’t focus on trafficking anymore. Even though we hear many cases we can’t always follow up.”
NGOs have been forced to shift their priorities to the escalating humanitarian crisis as funding shortages start to bite. The KWA recently closed the doors of its only shelter for trafficked women and can no longer afford to provide legal assistance or vocational training to victims.
Many of the thousands of displaced Kachin also cross into China in search of work, becoming even more difficult to track and protect.
“They cannot find jobs or livelihood activities here and will have to look for jobs in China which consequently can lead to them being trafficked. They’re in this difficult situation, they don’t have a regular income at home any more, they don’t have a place to find a job and so become easy prey,” says Alum, who manages the KWA’s trafficking programme.
Before fighting broke out, as many as ten cases a month would be addressed in the local courts managed by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). But the penalty for trafficking is just a fine of Y 3,000-5,000.
The Chinese government routinely protects their citizens from prosecution, refusing to hand over trafficking agents to the Kachin authorities. Although the KWA and the KIO have developed better relations with local authorities across the border, China’s intransigence continues to present substantial obstacles.
“Even sometimes a woman calls us saying ‘come and save me’ but the problem is that the woman doesn’t speak Chinese and she doesn’t know where she is,” explains May Li Aung. “And even if we know where a woman is then we have to ask the Chinese police to help us and they just say that if we want them to bring her back, then we have to pay for the travel costs – sometimes as much as Y20,000 – and we just can’t afford that.”
An estimated 75,000 people have been displaced by fighting between Kachin rebels and government troops since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June last year. As many as 10,000 of the displaced are living in the shadows on the Chinese side of the border without access to any government protection.