Thailand, in this last decade, has experienced great changes in fortune which have touched the lives of everyone in the Kingdom.
Some people prospered and continue to do so; others have tasted success only to fall victim to the regional economic downturn, while very large numbers have remained unblessed by “trickle-down” wealth and do not have the qualifications to profit from opportunities presented by the new economic growth.
Amongst this sector of the population lurks the temptation to offer children into the market as cheap labour, sex-workers or beggars, in a desperate effort to avoid poverty.
Prince of Songkla University, Phuket, became involved with the problems of abused children after one of its foreign teachers was arrested for sexually abusing young people. These 7 to 11 years old Sea Gypsy boys were easy prey for foreign paedophiles because they craved affection in a loveless society and were abjectly poor.
The local legal, social and educational systems, although well meaning, were too poorly funded to properly help abused children in the province. It was only through intervention from outside that the above case was prosecuted at all and the follow-up was grossly inadequate.
Local people do not report cases of abuse because there is no easy channel for such complaints and most residents are wary of contact with the authorities.
There was an incontrovertible need for a local community group to co-operate with the authorities and provide help for children in need, thus Child-Watch, Phuket was established and is now a registered Thai charity.
It has been estimated that there are 2,000 children living in Phuket are not legal residents nor do they have access to basic education or medical services.
These children are both foreign (mostly Burmese. Mon, Vietnamese, and Khmer) and Thai. Some are children of itinerant construction workers; others are in prison, forced to stay with their parents who have been arrested – there is no alternative! Many work as beggars or vendors of gum, roses and cigarettes in bar entertainment areas at night.
Children of Sea Gypsies, although residents if Phuket, are also without adequate educational opportunities because of the poverty of their families. Sexual and physical child-abuse is often encountered and particularly vulnerable are the children noted above.
The legal system in Thailand is very slow to respond to child-abuse cases and the prosecution of a single offence can take over two years; victims have little legal protection.
There is little help available for these children. The local office of the Department of Public welfare does not have sufficient funds or other resources to provide all the care needed, particularly for children from outside Phuket.
Indeed, for foreign children, most police and local authorities discourage help despite the large number of foreigners working in agriculture and construction in Phuket.