Judah Tana: Asia is witnessing one of history’s largest trafficking events

Jun 15, 2024
Mae Sot, Tak, Thailand - April 21, 2019 : Dense crowd of Myanmar on Thailand-Myanmar friendship bridge on the way back to work

Judah Tana is the Australian founder-director of Global Advance Projects which has rescued hundreds of trafficking victims who arrived in Myanmar from more than 60 countries as far-flung as Uganda and Morocco.

He has spent two decades working on the Thailand-Myanmar border, where criminal syndicates have turned human trafficking into a global industry worth trillions of dollars.

Tana spoke with UCA News in Mae Sot on the Thai border about the horrific realities and stark choices confronting hundreds of thousands of victims of human trafficking along the Thailand-Myanmar frontier. The following is excerpts from the interview.

Criminal networks have taken human trafficking and made it an industry. Can you give us an idea of the scale involved?

It’s unbelievable. Most people, even the people in the compound, don’t realise how big they are, because they’re not able to walk around. We have people that study these compounds, and then come and actually stand in front of them at the Moei River (dividing Myanmar and Thailand) and they’re silenced by the sheer size.

To see as far as the eye can see, east to west, these mega cities that have been built, just in the shortest amount of time — three years — and they’ve taken up hundreds of acres of land. There’s just skyscrapers and buildings housing tens of thousands of people, whose sole job is scamming.

It blows your mind. And there’s not one of them. There’s not two of them. There’s not 10. There’s not 20. There’s not 30. There’s — even in our region — more than 40 centre and all of them are just getting bigger. That’s just along our river system.

Then you’ve got Cambodia, you’ve got Laos, you’ve got China’s border, Myanmar, Thailand. And now we’re seeing them move into the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

What are some of the worst examples of torture you’ve witnessed when it comes to the victims of these organised crime gangs?

Most of the scam centres, when they first begin, begin with such trauma and abuse. So you’re saying like, ‘what’s the worst?’ I mean, you dream up the worst and it gets worse than that.

Often they have this dark room. You’ll be put in this prison, which is a black room, no lights. And you’ll be hanged from the ceiling with cuffs around your wrist. For four or five days, your arms are never let down. You won’t be allowed to fall asleep.

If you fall asleep, you end up being tasered. So these guys and women are coming out with just scars all over their body from being tasered for days on end to keep them awake. And then they take scalpels and they cut their legs. So the blood starts to flow down their legs.

From there, they’re not given food or water. And when they finally beg for it, they pee into a cup and offer it to them to drink it. These guys might be able to handle a day without water, they might even go 48 hours. But at some point they give up hope and the only thing of substance that they can get is urine in a cup.

So they choose to drink it. They come out with such trauma and shame from that particular situation. But then it goes beyond that. We have women that are just beaten black and blue from top to bottom. We have men that have tried to jump for freedom.

They break their legs on the floor. They’re captured. Then they’re beaten so badly that their pelvis is broken. Their arms are broken. Then they’re dumped somewhere. That’s where our team comes along, the other partners that I work with in the field. We help them get into hospital, help them with recovery, and then furthermore into repatriation.

I’ve had a victim, she was used particularly for developing AI technologies. For her to keep working, as a control, they used to bring people into her room and beat them even to death so that she would continue to work. She’d wake up one morning and just say; “I don’t want to do this. You’ve got to let me go.” And that brings someone in on her team and they’d beat them to death and say, that’s your fault. Now keep working 16 hours a day, otherwise it’ll happen to the next person.

And it became her duty to keep them alive.

I think you were saying in an earlier conversation that one chap after being hung, shackled above in handcuffs, that he lost the use of both his arms.

He was just a young 20-something that thought that he was coming to a call centre job and found himself hanged in a black room. And when he finally got cut down, he was unable to feel his arms. The family paid, I think US$7,000, to get him cut down from that roof.

We took him to an emergency hospital. They referred him to a specialist. Unfortunately, he had been left for too long for there ever to be recovery. He has complete paralysis from his shoulders down to his fingers. It was terribly sad.

What is the situation now? And how is it evolving? Looking ahead?

I think the system that’s in play along this border region of Thailand and Myanmar and the wider Mekong region, it blows our imagination. We look at it as being one of the largest human trafficking events in history, with more than 400,000 people being moved from over 60 countries into this region in order to be forced into scamming.

What is your advice to the trafficking victims in Myanmar, which is totally absorbed with a civil war?

I talk to victims daily, inside the centre. I have talked to them and given them hope. I’ve stopped them jumping from buildings, taking their own lives, swallowing razor blades, essentially talking them off the ledge.

When they’re sitting there, they really only have one choice. And it is a choice of life and death. And that’s what I want your readers to understand.

It’s not that they could just stop working. They stop working, they die. They’re actually murdered, or tortured so badly that they wish that they were. Their only choice is to keep working. They show up to work and they keep working. That keeps them alive.

Only if they can collect enough to pay the ransom, can they go free. Those are the options. They have to show up and go to work to stay alive and beg their family to come up with a way of being able to pay their captors to let them go.


Republished from UCANews, June 12, 2024

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