Chiang Mai, Thailand – Krit hangs out near McDonald’s most days, polishing the hood of his green tuk-tuk and waiting for customers. He can make as much as 3,000 Thai baht ($92) in a day driving tourists around this northern city.
Several years ago when Krit was just 16, this picture was very different. His customers were still Western tourists, but they went to him for sex, not tuk-tuk rides. Krit was a victim of Thailand’s sex-trafficking trade. For five years he worked in seedy bars and dingy massage joints in Chiang Mai’s red light district. He endured cruelty and exploitation, forced to go home with the men who venture to these dark places to buy sex with children.
It was a horrific life that forced Krit to the brink; the teen was later hospitalised with HIV, and almost died. But he made a miraculous recovery and went on to set up his own tuk-tuk business.
“I feel independent because I can control my own life,” says Krit, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy. “I don’t need money from customers in the bars. I have a new desire to change my life, to work hard and take care of myself. I feel lucky to be alive.”
Now Krit is teaching other teen boys – also sex-trafficking victims – to drive the noisy three-wheel taxis. He takes them to abandoned parking lots to practice changing gears and reversing. They practice English and learn how to read maps.
It’s part of a project run by Urban Light, the only NGO in Thailand that supports male victims of sex trafficking. The country is a notorious destination for sex tourists, and has one of the highest rates of child prostitution in the world. But the plight of boys is much less understood.
Reliable numbers are difficult to come by with most research overlooking boys. The UN estimates that almost 30 percent of all trafficking victims are male, but this includes forced labour, not just sex trafficking. In Thailand there’s a higher prevalence of young boys performing survival sex on the streets, according to the Global Slavery Index.
Urban Light founder Alezandra Russell insists that sex trafficking “is now a multi-billion dollar industry that’s affecting both genders”. Her organisation provides health check-ups, counselling, education and housing programmes – and has reached 5,000 boys in seven years.