It happens to boys, too: a story of sex trafficking in Thailand

45% of trafficking victims are boys and men.

Our memory works in funny ways, with a select few images flashing through our heads when we think back to a particular one. When I think back to my 10 days on the ground with Urban Light in Chiang Mai, it is one particular image from my first night that returns incessantly to mind.

The image that haunts me is that of a boy, barely 12, short and skinny, leaving a bar with a man, easily in his fifties, tall and overweight. The look on the man’s face spoke of entitlement, an air of dominance and anticipation. The way he led the 12 year-old across the street was more authoritarian than paternal. The look on the boy’s face was that of resignation, a numbed out expression of utter helplessness.

The boy was one of many led away by older men from bars across Chiang Mai that night, probably to a nearby motel or alleyway to provide sex for pay. I never learned that boy’s name, I don’t know where he is today, but I know that I will never forget the look on his face that night.

All this I saw from the back of a tok tok in an ostensibly residential neighborhood of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city. Together with Alezandra Russell, Urban Light’s founder, Brent Seely, the NGO’s Thailand director, and Montse Ferrer, a fellow pro-bono attorney, I was investigating places where boys are “sold.” From the back of that tok tok I would soon discover that, alongside Thailand’s highly public sale and exploitation of women, is a parallel but hidden network of bars, spas and cruising spots at which boys are “bought” and “sold” with impunity.

These boys, mostly teenagers, some as young as 10, have been trafficked from nearby Laos, Burma and Northern Thailand. The buyers are mainly white and Chinese “sex tourists” in their 40s to 70s. Local bar owners snarl these destitute boys with promises of good pay in return for “working” at their bars and then ply the boys with drugs so that survival sex becomes the only means for them to feed their addictions. The buyers, for their part, know that they can “buy” boys at will in Chiang Mai.

Despite the direness of the situation, trafficked boys remain one of the most under-served populations in Thailand. With many NGOs dedicated solely to the plight of girls trafficked into sex slavery and the boys themselves often reluctant to ask for help given the patriarchal nature of Thai society, the situation did not bode well for the boys of Chiang Mai.

Urban Light, the only NGO of its kind dedicated exclusively to helping boys, is changing the reality of these trafficked and exploited boys — offering them shelter, a daily hot meal they can rely on, medical testing, counseling, English and Thai classes, art relief and many other preventative and rehabilitative services.

Only a couple of blocks from Chiang Mai’s red light district, Urban Light runs a four-story drop-in center. It was within the walls of this drop-in center that I saw the promise of a better reality for Chiang Mai’s boys. I saw boys having a hot, healthy meal on the first floor, others participating in art relief classes on the center’s roof, still others waiting in line for medical and counselling appointments, and boys browsing the internet at the center’s computer room or simply taking a nap on the center’s comfy couches.

The boys treated the center as their home. They knew they were safe to take a nap without judgment, having probably gotten little sleep the night before. They knew they could count on the center’s doctor to see them when ill, and, when they were ready, they knew they could talk to a counselor to start their re-training to exit the sex trade altogether. The look in the eyes of every one of the boys at the center spoke of security – in the center they had found a refuge from the life they have been forced to lead outside its walls.

It is true that certain images become seared in our head, and, try as we might, we are unable to let them go. It is also true that we are capable of countering these images with other, hopeful ones. Urban Light’s center provided me with countless images of exploited boys taking charge of their lives again, helping me counter that one seared image. I can only hope that the boy I saw on that first night learns about Urban Light so that he too can have a shot at a different reality.

Ziad Reslan is an associate at Davis, Polk & Wardwell, currently assigned as a Legal Manager in Hong Kong. He shared his story with Sanctuary for Families after volunteering with Urban Light, and organization that helps boys who are survivors of sex trafficking in Thailand. 

5 Harmful Myths about Human Trafficking

When it comes to human trafficking, it’s hard to separate myth from fact.

Human trafficking is complicated. It’s kept under wraps, overlooked, and often ignored. Few reliable studies exist about its prevalence. As a result, it’s often hard to separate myth from fact when trying to understand this horrific abuse of human rights.

Read on to see some myths about human trafficking dispelled, and during Human Trafficking Awareness Month, take the opportunity to learn, share – and take action. 

1) MYTH: Human trafficking only happens in countries far away from the United States.

FACT: Human trafficking occurs around the world, in the United States, and right here in New York City. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center received over 16,600 calls for help last year. At Sanctuary, we regularly serve survivors of sex trafficking and human trafficking from the five boroughs. Our clients include both immigrants and native New Yorkers.

2) MYTH: Only women are victims of human trafficking.

FACT: Anyone, regardless of gender, can be a victim of human trafficking. In fact, studies have indicated that 45% of victims of human trafficking are men and boys. Men and boys can be victims of both labor trafficking AND sex trafficking.

3) MYTH: Human trafficking requires physical force or restraint to be considered trafficking.

FACT: Traffickers can use many kinds of tactics to coerce victims, including threats to a victim’s family; exploiting a victim’s vulnerability, such as lack of immigration status; using psychological tactics, like shaming, mental abuse, and isolation; and using debt bondage against a victim.

4) MYTH: Human trafficking is a small, underground industry that doesn’t affect many people.

FACT: 20.9 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a $150 billion global industry. There are no reliable numbers on human trafficking victims in the United States, but the reality is pretty clear – this crime is widespread and affects millions of people around the world and at home.

5) MYTH: There is nothing I can do to end human trafficking.

FACT: Everyone can take action to end human trafficking. You can volunteer with Sanctuary, make a donation, or sign up to receive advocacy updates. You can also make smart decisions about how you spend your money and what you buy – check out to see how your consumer decisions might be supporting human trafficking, and what you can do to make change.

Statement on the Yankees’ hiring of Aroldis Chapman

Chapman is being investigated by the MLB after allegations of domestic violence.

Pitcher Aroldis Chapman’s behavior toward his girlfriend this past October has all the hallmarks of lethality. When a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, it increases the risk of homicide for women by 500%. In the past 25 years in the U.S., more intimate partner homicides have been committed with guns than with all other weapons combined.

Additionally, the occurrence of strangulation during domestic abuse is widely recognized as an indicator that the abuse may later escalate into homicide.

It’s reprehensible that the New York Yankees hired Chapman when he is under investigation for violating Major League Baseball’s recent and much-touted domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy.

– Hon. Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director

10 times we came closer to ending gender violence in 2015

In 2015, we faced successes and challenges in our continued to work to end gender violence. Thank you for joining us.

1) Passing the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA)

After nearly four years of advocacy, we finally saw TVPJA pass in New York State. This new law increases penalties for traffickers and improves protections for minor victims of sex trafficking. It took incredible hard work and collaboration on the part of organizers, legislators, survivors, friends and peers to make this happen.

2) Giving 146 women a new shot at economic stability through our Economic Empowerment Program (EEP)

In August, we held our second graduation of 2015 for participants who completed our Office Operations Workshop. Throughout the year, 146 women completed EEP programming, gaining interview skills, job search assistance, intensive IT training and MS Office certifications. On average, graduates from the program in 2015 had a starting salary of $12.90, over $4 more than New York State’s private sector minimum wage.

3) Increasing our impact by 50%

We served nearly 15,000 adults, women and children – an increase of 50% from our previous year’s service numbers. Additionally, we doubled the number of people reached through our outreach efforts, connecting with over 40,000 community members, law enforcement officials, teachers, faith leaders, and others who seek to make a difference for survivors of gender violence.

4) Getting survivors out of shelter and into housing

We run five shelters at Sanctuary, including New York’s largest transitional domestic violence shelter, Sarah Burke House. But with the housing crisis in New York City, the numbers of clients successfully transitioning from shelter to safe housing dwindled. Thanks to the city’s new LINC program and amazing advocacy by our staff and partners, 70% of our Sarah Burke House clients found safe housing – up from 32% the previous year.

5) Launching the Domestic Violence Intervention, Education and Prevention Program (DVIEP)

In March, Sanctuary launched DVIEP, placing case managers at nine Police Service Areas throughout NYC. These case managers conduct outreach and assist survivors of domestic violence living in NYC public housing – their work is critical for educating police and the community.

6) Celebrating 30 years of Sanctuary

In June, we celebrated our thirtieth year of serving survivors of gender violence in New York. While Sanctuary’s mission, scope and size have changed over time, we remain true to our orginal goal: helping adults and children live life free from abuse.

7) Raising $2.1 million and breaking records at Zero Tolerance

Our Zero Tolerance Benefit in June is a beloved Sanctuary tradition, and year after year serves as a game-changing fundraiser that keeps us going in this life-saving work. We were so excited when our supporters came through this year by helping us raise over $2.1 million at the event – breaking a record for the most ever raised at ZT!

8) Unveiling the new

After seven years of serving us well, Sanctuary’s website was in desperate need of a face lift. In July we were so excited to launch a brand new website: the new site makes it easier to get help, learn about domestic violence, see Sanctuary’s impact, hear from our clients, and features our brand-new blog.

9) Reaching more families than ever at the holidays

With significant increases in our programming and the number of survivors we serve, we saw many high-needs families in need of joy, cheer and support this holiday season. Thankfully, our amazing donors “adopted” 139 families and fulfilled their holiday wishlists. Other supporters and volunteers made it possible for us to distribute 1,400 more gifts to additional clients in need!

10) Speaking out against hate, and envisioning a peaceful 2016

It was a remarkable year here at Sanctuary. This work is never easy, and for all the joys there were many challenges, including hateful political rhetoric that impacted many of our Muslim clients and staff. Take a moment to read Executive Director Judy H. Kluger’s New Year’s message, which speaks out against the prejudice we saw in 2015, and envisions a better year to come.

Thank you for all of your support.