Saturday, December 26, 2009

Chinese border town emerges as new front line in fight against human trafficking

Zaw Aung, 29, said he regularly crosses from Burma into China in search of work. Burmese women also are brought over for marriages with Chinese men -- some forced, some arranged through "matchmakers." (Keith B. Richburg/the Washington Post)

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009

This booming little border town in China's southwestern Yunnan province, where the economic prosperity of China is separated from the destitution of Burma by nothing more than a flimsy, rusted metal fence, has emerged as the new front line in the worldwide fight against human trafficking.

On any given afternoon, a steady stream of people scale the six-foot-high fence, unperturbed by the Chinese border guards posted just a hundred yards away. Amid the Burmese men looking for day labor, or women coming to sell their vegetables in the wealthier Chinese markets, is traffic far less benign:

Burmese women being brought over for marriages with Chinese men -- some forced, some voluntarily arranged through "matchmakers." Babies being brought into China to be sold. And Chinese women from poorer inland areas being moved in the opposite direction, often ending up in Southeast Asia's sex industry.

In the shadowy world of human trafficking, say government officials and advisers with foreign aid agencies, China has become a source country, a destination country and a transit country all at once.

"Some of the Yunnan women and girls think they'll get a better job in Thailand," said Kathleen Speake, chief technical adviser for the United Nations' International Labor Office in Beijing. Burmese "are coming into China. We're looking at being trafficked for adoption, and women being trafficked for marriage."

No firm numbers are available on the extent of trafficking. Kirsten di Martino, a project officer in Beijing for UNICEF, said that from 2000 to 2007, China's public security bureau investigated 44,000 cases of trafficking, rescuing about 130,000 women and children. But, she added, "this is just the tip of the iceberg."

China, she said, "is very big, and has a lot of border -- and has a whole lot of problems."

Here in Ruili, two criminal gangs were cracked and 14 women rescued in the first half of the year, said Meng Yilian, who works for the newly formed group China-Myanmar Cooperation Against Human Trafficking. Burma is also known as Myanmar.

A legally suspect vocation

"In the villages bordering Myanmar, there are some people working as matchmakers, " she said. "And some of them are human traffickers. It's hard to tell who are the matchmakers and who are the traffickers."

Matchmaking, which falls into a legally murky terrain, is rooted in Chinese tradition, which allows a man to make a gift to a woman's family in exchange for marriage.

In this border area, matchmakers are not hard to find. From Ruili, a gravel road leads west, running parallel to the Burmese border and past ethnic Dai villagers working in paddy fields. In Mang Sai village, the matchmaker is a heavy-set 28-year-old woman who said she has been in the business seven or eight years and had "successfully made 20 matches," including two involving Chinese buyers and Burmese girls.

The matchmaker -- she requested that her name be withheld because her profession is legally suspect -- said a local Chinese girl will cost as much as 50,000 renminbi, about $7,300. But a girl from Burma, she said, costs just 20,000 renminbi, or just under $3,000.

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