Bangkok (AsiaNews) - The Thai Catholic Church is "very small. Its members represent 0.5 per cent out of a population of more than 67 million people. but in some ways it is worth more than 50 per cent because it was able to generate critical awareness, focusing attention on long hidden problems," like the exploitation of workers, prostitution and human trafficking, all modern forms of slavery. In doing so, "it gave rise to a critical debate involving strict ethical principles," said Fr Adriano Pelosin, a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME)
Speaking to AsiaNews, the 36-year veteran of Thailand has led his mission into the slums that dot the outskirts of Bangkok. This has enabled him to save children from sexual violence, and keep them away from traffickers and organised crime. In May 2013, the Archbishop of Bangkok (now cardinal) Mgr Kriengsak Kovitvanit entrusted him with Saint Mark Parish in Pathumthani.
In preparation for the first International Day of Prayer and Reflection against Human Trafficking, which the Church will mark this Sunday, AsiaNews has gathered a series of stories on migration and human trafficking in Asia. The matter is very important for Thailand, which serves as a crossroads for human trafficking and is (still) one of the most flourishing prostitution markets in the world, despite recent changes.
"The Thai Church is doing something," Fr Pelosin said. "It has done a lot through female religious congregations, especially the Ursulines, who have worked hard in this area, focusing on raising awareness among people."
In every diocese and parish, he noted, there are "groups of Catholic women who report the problem" of trafficking and sexual slavery, involving "women and children, those most at risk." This has brought "greater awareness, at least among Thai women, about their dignity and value," the PIME missionary said.
Today, in fact, although prostitution is growing in many parts of the country, especially in the capital Bangkok and in the main resorts like Pattaya, in the south, the prostitution business and its victims seem to have changed.
According to Fr Pelosin, there are fewer and fewer young Thai prostitutes because of awareness campaigns. Today, most sex slaves "are Laotian, Burmese, Chinese; others come from former satellite states of the Soviet Union."
The exploiters, however, are always the same. "They are not Thai, but unscrupulous Europeans and Westerners," said the missionary, who points out that slavery, and exploitation are not only Asian problems.
The West is involved, he explained, "insofar as the demand for prostitutes comes from there. Many of the agencies involved are managed by Westerners; therefore, it cannot be said that it is a Thai or eastern issue. It is a business created by Westerners, Japanese, Chinese and many Russians now, new owners of clubs, karaoke bars, and massage parlours. The Western world in some cases is unable to see and recognise everyone's dignity, especially women's. It does not only export rights, but also exploitation."
Fr Pelosin remembers one of them. Rose (not her real name for privacy reasons) was sold at age of 22 by her father to a brothel in the capital, where she worked as a prostitute for five years. He would get a cut (5,000 baht) every month on his daughter's earnings to settle old debts. And she already had a small child.
"Girls feel responsible towards their family, towards their father," the missionary explained, "and they put up, unwillingly, but they do it with a certain casualness."
Through the efforts of a priest and the Church, the young woman, who later ended up in a drug ring in the south, managed to escape her abusers and rebuild her life with a man.
"She got married and had another son, her third, after abandoning a second when she was still caught up in the world of drugs and prostitution. The child was taken in by a local Catholic family."
"This used to happen many years ago with Thai girls," Fr Pelosin said. "However, the Church's work raising awareness has led to a drastic reduction in the problem. Unfortunately, now it is happening with young Laotian women illegally brought into the country."
Government agencies are now "more responsible and prudent" because of what Catholic men and women religious have done. Nevertheless, Bangkok "remains a centre for the trafficking of women and children. More recently, this has been compounded by the trafficking in human organs sold for money."
The work undertaken by Catholics in recent weeks has raised the visibility among non-Christians of the day against human trafficking, which falls this Sunday, 8 February.
"More than 100,000 students, many of them non-Catholics, attend schools run by nuns," the missionary said. "The work of raising awareness has touched people's hearts. Now young people know that there is a problem that had been swept under the carpet for far too long. The Church wants problems to be recognised and addressed, not hidden away."