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A very close call

Luck is on the side of three Thai women whose naivete almost lands them in the sex trade in Europe

Nam, Tik and Da came from different provinces to work in Bangkok - 36-year-old Nam at a spa; Tik, a 26-year-old mother of two, at a noodle stall; and transvestite Da, also 26, at a supermarket. They got to know each other at a pub where they went to dance after work.

They ended up on the other side of the world together, dubbed the luckiest women in a decade. It's not a happy story - they were lucky for having escaped a horrible fate.

None of the friends had ever been abroad, so when an acquaintance asked Nam if she'd like to visit Germany and Nam told the others, it was a chance that was hard to resist.

Nam had a phone number for a man named Suthisak who claimed to own a travel agency and had a friend named Ratana, a Surin native who could take care of the girls on their two-week holiday.

The all-inclusive price was a reasonable Bt65,000 per person, and Nam managed to bargain that down to Bt60,000 since she was bringing along a pair of friends.

The plan was to fly to Germany for a fortnight - where exactly they weren't sure - and be home in time for Songkran.

On board the plane on April 2, right after the lights were dimmed after supper, a Singaporean man approached them and asked them to follow him once they landed because the airport signs would be difficult to understand.

The airport turned out to be Athens, though the women didn't know it. They followed the man through Customs and boarded another flight to Germany. On landing again, at another unknown city, they found Ratana waiting.

Although they were expecting to stay at her home, she installed them in a rented basement apartment. She came by once a day, bringing instant noodles. In between meals they drank water to stave off their hunger. Asked when she could take them out sightseeing, Ratana said her husband was too busy.

Within two days the girls were worried. Nam speaks a little English, but none of them knew any German. They seemed to be in a remote town with no shop or telephone booth in sight. Ratana was their only link to the world they knew.

Ten days after their arrival in Germany a police squad burst into their flat. They had valid passports and visas, but were taken into custody to serve as witnesses in the prosecution of a human-trafficking ring.

A Thai translator told the friends they had barely escaped becoming the latest victims of a network that had for years been smuggling Thai women into Germany.

"Not everyone is as lucky as they were," says Kittasak Lorpatimagorn, Thailand's Consul in Frankfurt.

"It's not often that police find them in their homes," he says, explaining that usually the trafficked women are arrested in brothels.

Most of the time there is no work permit or passport, so those found are quickly deported. Usually, by the time they're in the Consulate's hands they've been through a nightmare.

Had the trio of friends not been found by the police, they would likely have ended up as sex slaves, either sold to a pimp or forced to marry a local man whose idea of matrimonial bliss would have been completely one-sided.

The three friends, a Consulate staff member declared, are probably the luckiest Thai women to have undergone this ordeal in Germany in a decade. Not only had they not yet been exploited, they still had their paperwork and air tickets with them.

"Since they weren't doing anything illegal," Kittisak says, "they were treated as victims, who both the police and the consulate must assist."

It turned out that the police had been following them since their arrival at Dusseldorf airport on April 3, suspecting right away that they had something to do with the trafficking network they'd already been watching for more than a year.

Ratana and two Germans living with her were arrested, and the Singaporean was barred from ever entering Germany again.

Kittisak has observed some changes in recent years in the way the trafficking rings operate.  "Because of Germany's strictness about issuing visas, these rings have developed a bypass - they apply for visas through other countries that aren't as strict, such as Greece, Norway, Spain and Italy."

Kittisak says there are good reasons for Thai women to work in Europe, usually financial. If they're lucky, they also find someone able to take care of them.

The Consulate loaned the three friends 600 each - about Bt27,600 - to cover the cost of re-routing their return tickets.

"You might see us smiling now," Da says as they wait for their flight home, "but inside we've suffered a lot."

They admit that it never crossed their minds they were being duped because they'd paid their own way. "I thought, 'I'm hiring them to do all the work'," says Nam.

They've learned many lessons, Tik acknowledges, among them, that it's not easy getting a visa to visit most foreign countries. It almost always requires a personal application. They were also taught how to read their airfare itinerary on their plane tickets.

While Tik says she's not afraid of travelling abroad again, Nam isn't ready yet to consider it. "Let me get back to home base first. The only thing I'm thinking about right now is getting home."

Sopaporn Kurz

The Nation

Frankfurt, Germany

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