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Human cargo flows across China-Myanmar border

RUILI, China – This booming little border town in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, where the economic prosperity of China is separated from the destitution of Myanmar 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 men from Myanmar looking for day labor, or women coming to sell their vegetables in the wealthier Chinese markets, is traffic far less benign:

  • Myanmar 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. People from Myanmar “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. Myanmar is also known as Burma.

“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 Myanmar border and past ethnic Dai villagers working in paddy fields. In Mang Sai village, the matchmaker is a heavyset 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 Myanmar, she said, costs just 20,000 renminbi, or just less than $3,000.

She said her matchmaking fee is 3000 renminbi, or about $440.

“I follow the principle: Only if the two people like each other is it a match,” she said.

Further south, in Jie Xiang town, a pharmacist said it was often difficult to tell which Myanmar girls come here voluntarily to marry Chinese men and escape poverty, and which ones are the victims of traffickers.

The pharmacist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from traffickers, said: “For the woman 25 to 30 years old, they come voluntarily. For those 25 and younger, it’s hard to tell if they come voluntarily or were forced.”

The pharmacist, 43, said he often speaks with the women from Myanmar because they come to his shop for carsickness medicine before they set out for long drives with their new husbands.

“They are forced by their economic situation at home,” the pharmacist said. “They have no other choice.”

He said he knows one trafficker in the town who is trying to find a buyer for an 8-year-old Burmese girl after selling the mother.

“The border is so long, and there are a lot of channels,” the pharmacist said. “You can’t watch every path. It’s really easy for people to come across. There’s no strict border here at all.”

A few hours at the border confirmed what the pharmacist said. While the official border crossing point at Jie Gao was relatively quiet – just a few cars passing by and two pedestrians – there was a steady flow over the rickety metal fence nearby, just out of eyeshot of the green-uniformed border policemen.

A woman from Myanmar, Zei Nan, 51, climbed over the fence carrying a sack filled with vegetables she was hoping to sell. A young man, Zaw Aung, 29, said he crosses over almost every day, looking for day labor. Another woman, Huang Shuguo, 30, came to the fence to bring a change of clothes for her husband, who drives a motorcycle taxi on the Chinese side.

The spot is so well-known as a border crossing point that it could hardly be called secret. Red taxis and motorcycles cruised up and down the narrow street, hoping to pick up migrants. Others stopped to discharge their passengers at the fence.

Several people crossing said that on the rare occasions when the police intervene to stop people, the penalty is a fine and a day in jail. But Zaw Aung said, “We are seldom caught. Even the police know we are climbing over.”

The government, however, recently launched a crackdown on the “matchmakers” as one step in the effort to combat trafficking. And there is evidence the move has had some effect.

In Huo Sai village – a place identified by area residents as a key transit point for trafficked Burmese women – the matchmaker was nowhere to be found. Residents said the matchmaker had gone underground because of the increased police monitoring.

Researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.

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