China and Myanmar must implement more effective and coordinated prevention, law enforcement, and assistance to victims of trafficking in women for marriage, an international rights group said Thursday in a new report detailing the “bride” trade across the countries’ shared border.
In its report entitled “Give Us a Baby and We Will Let You Go,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said women from families affected by fighting between Myanmar’s military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin state and the northern part of neighboring Shan state are routinely trafficked into China under the guise of employment to fill a shortage of women across the border.
HRW interviewed 37 trafficking survivors who fled poverty in Kachin state and northern Shan state—where fighting has displaced an estimated 107,000 people over the past seven years—with the promise of a lucrative job offered through networks of friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives, only to find themselves held captive in China as “wives” to Chinese “husbands.”
Most said they were recruited by someone they trusted, were drugged along the way across the border, and bought by families who were more interested in having a baby than a “bride”—including some who were explicitly told they were free to go, as long as they left their children behind.
Many said they were raped frequently and subjected to other physical and emotional abuse, as well as forced labor in the fields or homes of the families that bought them.
After returning to Myanmar, many of the women dealt with trauma and, in some cases, medical complications as a result of the abuse they suffered, but they often faced stigma from their communities in an environment where very few services existed to help them recover from their ordeal.
HRW said that law enforcement officers on both sides of the border, including within areas controlled by the KIA, has done little to recover trafficked women, often turning away telling families seeking missing loved ones or telling them that they would need to pay for help.
In cases where women escaped and sought assistance from Chinese police, they were sometimes jailed for immigration violations, rather than treated as victims, or simply dumped at the border.
Meanwhile, many trafficking victims are reluctant to share their stories because those who trafficked them remain free, HRW said, noting that when authorities in Myanmar do make arrests, they usually only target the initial brokers, while police in China almost never arrest people who knowingly bought trafficked “brides” and traffickers in KIA-controlled areas are sometimes punished with a reprimand.
Police in both Myanmar and China, and in KIA-controlled areas made little effort to coordinate with one another or make trafficking cases a priority, the group said.
While it is difficult to estimate how many women are being trafficked from Myanmar to China for sale as brides, HRW cited the Myanmar Human Rights Commission as saying 226 women were trafficked to China in 2017, while the Myanmar Department of Social Welfare provides assistance to between 100 and 200 female trafficking victims returned from China each year.
But HRW said the numbers likely represent only a small proportion of the total number of cases because many cases of missing women are never reported, or women who escape keep their experience a secret due to stigma.
In December last year, Myanmar authorities launched an investigation into an apparent human-trafficking operation that recruits women as brides and birth surrogates for Chinese men through advertisements posted on the streets of Muse, a major trading town in northern Shan State, an anti-trafficking official said.
One ad with a headline reading “Invitation for Marriage” in Chinese and Burmese, gave the height, income, and address of an unnamed Chinese man looking for a Myanmar bride between the ages of 26 and 32.
Other advertisements with the headline “Surrogate Mothers Wanted” said a company was looking for women under the age of 25 to carry the babies of Chinese men in exchange for payments of 13,000 yuan (U.S. $1,900) a month plus meals and accommodations.
A report published in December by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health measured the prevalence of trafficking for forced marriages and childbearing among women and girls from Myanmar, specifically from Shan and Kachin states to China’s Yunnan province.
It found that 7,500 of the estimated 171,000 women and girls who migrated to China between 2013 and 2017 were in forced marriages, while 5,100 of the migrants were forced to bear children.
In Thursday’s report, HRW recommended that both Myanmar and China improve implementation of agreements to provide effective and coordinated anti-trafficking prevention, law enforcement, and assistance to victims, while collaborating to develop formalized and government-monitored recruitment pathways for people from Myanmar to legally obtain employment in China.
It also called on the two governments to collaborate on strengthening efforts at the border to raise awareness of the risk of trafficking, detect it, assist victims, and maintain a watchlist of suspected traffickers.
HRW said Myanmar and the KIA’s political wing—the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO)—should develop and implement public awareness campaigns to inform people in high-risk areas, and those crossing the border, of the risk of trafficking and measures to protect themselves, as well as provide comprehensive services to trafficking survivors.
China should end its practice of jailing trafficking survivors for immigration violations, assist their return to Myanmar, and provide them with a safe means by which to travel back to China to assist in the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against them.
Lastly, the rights group called on international donors and organizations to pressure the Myanmar and Chinese governments, and the KIO, to do more to tackle the bride trade, while also supporting NGOs experienced in providing services to trafficking victims in both government and KIA-controlled areas.