The children that live and work on the streets around the tourist area in Chiang Mai are vulnerable to many dangers. The major risks are from HIV/AIDS, sexual diseases, drug use, selling drugs, skin diseases, psychological problems, child prostitution, sexual abuse, police arrests, physical body weakness, commercial sexual exploitation, joining gangs and street fighting.
The majority of street children are Akha hill tribe children. A large proportion of these kids come across the Thai-Myanmar border at Mae Sai and then move south to Chiang Mai, Bangkok, etc. Many arrive with their families who are fleeing conflict, abuse and extreme poverty in Myanmar. Some are also trafficked across the border or become trafficked within Thailand for the commercial sex trade.
There are many factors that perpetuate the condition of the street children that live and work around the tourist area. The majority of hill tribe children and their families are deemed stateless by the Thai government and they have no identity cards. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation as they canít access education, health care or legal employment.
Since street children are often the main bread winners in the family many parents are unsupportive of child development activities that cut into a childís work time. In the tourist area over 50 percent of parents or guardians of street children are on drugs. The children are made to work to support their parentsí drug habit and sometimes the parents sell their children to buy drugs.
Selling flowers at night at entertainment venues and providing sexual favours is seen as a quick way to earn money. There are big profit incentives for all those involved (including parents, agents and kids) in the sex trade to keep children working. Since Thailand is a popular sex tourist destination there is a great demand for children for sex. Pre-pubescent boys and girls are sought after by foreign paedophiles, situational offenders experimenting with child sex, and men afraid of contracting HIV/AIDS who want younger girls as they falsely believe children are a safe option.
Against a backdrop of poverty, corruption, indifference, limited child protection measures and weak law enforcement these children exist as pawns in the game of profiteering. These children and youth struggle with no direction or real purpose; in search of any instant and momentary gratification - a new mobile phone or the mere suggestion of love by a foreign child sex tourist and with drugs to numb the mind and continue to survive.
Mainstream Thai society is often prejudice against the hill tribe people and the lack of public awareness on the plight of street children also makes many people indifferent to the situation faced by these children. Since the seniority system still dictates the prevalent cultural norms, the opinions of children is not given priority and Child Rights is yet to be fully realised. This lack of consideration exacerbates the situation for disadvantaged, vulnerable children who are sidelined and unable to access any limited support available to children to help them out of their detrimental or at-risk circumstances.
Well intentioned but short sighted projects and schemes established by philanthropic foreign volunteer tourists, residents and people of faith can also help perpetuate the condition for the street children and other disadvantaged children. With limited understanding of the social fabric of Thai society, the subtle working complexities of the culture, community development and child protection, projects quickly become ineffective or unsustainable. They can also detract from the long-term child development work being carried out by Thai organisations and temporarily provide a false hope for the children who become dependent on their unsustainable initiatives. In a country where paedophiles also create scholarship programs, support schemes and teach English as a means to access children, it is often difficult to know the well-intentioned philanthropic individual from the paedophile.
With modernity and consumerism bypassing the previous importance placed on tradition, older street kids and even affluent kids are lured into a materialistic culture and many enter the sex trade to support their life style. This situation is highly alarming as it is the demand for sex with children that is creating the increasing supply of children.