China’s Reinforced Border Fence Shifts Human Trafficking Into Myanmar

1 September 2023

Hoping to curb the rate of illegal trafficking exchanges with its southern neighbors, China has been constructing new barriers along its borders with Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar since 2020. The challenge of crossing these reinforced fences, which are often electric, topped with barbed wire and over three metres (10 feet) high, has shifted patterns of human trafficking and illicit trade in the region.

Before China’s border reinforcement projects began, thousands of women and girls were trafficked from Myanmar to China and forced to marry and bear children. According to a study by Johns Hopkins University, this practice was driven mainly by the fact that China’s population had over 34 million more males than females.

At the end of the study, which was conducted between June 2017 and April 2018, both Myanmar and China were urged to increase their border protections and double down on anti-trafficking measures.

At the end of 2020, Chinese media sources announced that new fencing would be constructed along the Myanmar border as a measure to decrease the spread of COVID-19. Despite this official statement, many people speculated that China’s government had additional motives for reinforcing the borders, such as regaining control over gambling and other cross-boarder crimes in the region, as well as immigration in both directions.

Myanmar is not the only country whose borders China has recently moved to reinforce. At roughly the same time, China also began building a fence equipped with new monitoring technologies along the border between its Guangxi Zhuang region and Vietnam.

Unfortunately, however, rather than putting an end to the cross-border crimes in the Southeast Asian region, China’s new fences have simply shifted the routes that traffickers take.

“Previously, they would take their victims across mountain trails and rivers into China undetected. Now that they can’t do so, the traffickers have opened up new destinations to take their victims to. We’ve seen a growth in trafficking to northern Myanmar, Cambodia and, to some extent, Laos,” explained Michael Brosowski, who founded Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, an NGO that rescues victims of human trafficking.

Although China’s new walls have shifted the destination of trafficking victims away from Chinese territory, Chinese citizens are still heavily involved in the illicit cross-border activity taking place in the region.

According to Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai, most of these crimes begin with online gambling schemes and telecom frauds designed to lure Chinese hopefuls across the Myanmar border. Hoping to find the high-paying jobs that scammers had promised, many immigrants are instead kidnapped, murdered, or sold into the sex trade.

After having met to discuss the issue merely two months prior, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang returned to Myanmar in May to reemphasize the importance of the countries’ joint efforts to fight cross-border crimes, promote bilateral trade and construct a peacefully-regulated China-Myanmar economic corridor.

Although Myanmar’s current political state makes negotiations difficult, Home Affairs Minister of Myanmar Lieutenant General Soe Htut has agreed to collaborate more closely with China to resolve the issue and crack down on the illegal activity compromising the region’s stability.

Article by Fatima Abuzar.
Editing by Anrike Visser.

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