“They have Ugandan passports. They cannot get Thai visas!” Our newly adopted 3 and 5 year olds were being denied visas to extend their stay in Thailand. No arguing would change the authorities’ minds. So we packed a quick overnight bag and headed to the neighboring country to apply at the Thai Embassy for new visas.
I felt a little anxious as Jeff (my husband) went to the window to apply, but we had every document imaginable to convince authorities these children should live with us – their legal parents, in Thailand. When Jeff turned to face me however, he looked upset. Again, the official rejected the application because they had Ugandan passports. The official said the children could stay in Laos for 3-4 weeks, while they worked on it with the consulate in Bangkok or the children could be deported back to Uganda.
At this point I joined in the argument, “These are our children ages 3 and 5! Isn’t there a higher law that protects children’s rights to live with their parents?” The official was not happy with us, but said she would talk to her boss. She returned and asked for our documents again. Then she wanted a letter from NightLight Foundation, which we did not have. The visa office closed it’s operations for the day. Feeling very frustrated, we returned to the hotel.
The following day, we returned with the letter. But now, she wanted a copy of the ID card to match the signature. We called staff in Bangkok and asked her to rush a fax to the embassy. That document arrived, and the documents were accepted. When we picked up the visas the next day, we were so relieved! We returned to Bangkok by bus.
I grew up believing in the right to due process of law and to justice. When these rights are denied, I protest and persist until I see breakthrough. I have taken these rights for granted. I am learning, however, that justice is not a right easily granted to the poor. Our experience with the children’s visas was inconvenient and tense for a few days but only a small glimpse of what our sisters from Africa face as their norm.
“Gloria” didn’t look well from the first day we met her. Gloria had been trafficked from Uganda to Thailand under false promises of a good job. Instead, Gloria was forced into prostitution to pay off a debt to the trafficker. Once paid, the trafficker abandoned her in Thailand without a visa. When we met Gloria, she had been on the streets for 2 years. She wanted assistance, so she entered our transition house.
Gloria was taken for a medical check-up soon after she moved in to the shelter. It would be three weeks before she received the results of the blood work. In the meantime, there was a lot to do to prepare Gloria for repatriation. She would have to be identified as a trafficked victim by the Anti-Trafficking department of the Royal Thai police.
According to Thai law, Gloria’s case was a clear case of trafficking. The police however, did not agree, because she stayed in Thailand two years after her trafficker left her. They argued that she could have gone home or gotten another job. That she had no money, was on overstay, and is not legally permitted to work in Thailand, was not accounted for. The police did not want to be corrected by NGO workers. They held to their judgement and said she would have to be deported for illegal entry.
It was a big blow to everyone. A few days later, Gloria received the results of her blood work and got more bad news. She had full blown AIDS with a CD4 count of 1. A couple days later, Gloria was taken to the emergency room and admitted in ICU. She died the following morning. While we are thankful that Gloria died in a loving community and not alone on the streets, had she received the results faster and had the anti-trafficking police done their job well, Gloria might have been able to return home to her family.
Justice does not come easily for victims of trafficking. They survive hell and then far too often they are re-traumatized by the legal processes. NightLight stands in the gap for these women. We use our voices to fight for their rights. Last year we were able to send 27 women home in spite of the obstacles. Without advocates these women are not likely to receive justice. We, alongside of other organizations, are working to influence the systems that block justice. It is not at all easy and is often discouraging. However, we will not give up and will pursue justice for these precious ones who cannot do it for themselves. We are sharing Gloria’s story to expose the gaps in the process that deny justice. We are fighting for change.
We recently received a letter from a relative of Gloria, thanking us for caring for her in her last days and for making sure that her body was returned to be laid to rest in Africa. He is a lawyer, and although he was not able to save Gloria, he wants to pursue justice and see the traffickers prosecuted. With her story, he hopes to help other women find freedom and justice.
The consequences of trafficking killed Gloria and justice was denied her, but Gloria’s life will be remembered and celebrated. She was a courageous woman who sacrificed everything for her family. We hope and pray that her death will be a turning point to improve the systems in Thailand and in Africa, to protect the vulnerable, to free the captives, and to pursue justice for these amazing women.