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Tourism Projects Aim to Protect Thai Hill Tribes From Traffickers

The United Nations is working to combat human trafficking among Thailand's poor hill tribes - with an anti-poverty program to make communities less vulnerable to traffickers. The program has set-up home-stays in traditional villages to attract tourist spending.

The Lahu hill tribe village of Baan Jalae, 30 kilometers north of Thailand's Chiang Rai township, is opening its doors and homes to tourists interested in experiencing the traditions and culture of the region.

Visitors stay with local families and spend money - helping villagers combat poverty, which makes them vulnerable to false promises of human traffickers. The U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights says that as many as 12,000 women and children in these villages are likely targets.

The U.N.'s International Labor Organization (ILO) is sponsoring the tourism initiative in three northern Thai provinces: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Phayao.

The program attracts tourists who are interested in living with the Lahu, Akha and Karen tribes.

In the afternoon light, in Baan Jalae, Lahu men and women in traditional dress perform a simple dance to welcome visitors.

Hill Tribe Tours is operating the program with funding from the ILO Somsak Malee, with the tour company, says not only does the home-stay project provide incomes for families hosting tourists, but also for those trained as tour guides and for local craftspeople who sell their wares.

"They can take the tourist on the tour by themselves and we have many volunteer and they can manage the tour by themselves," he says.

In Baan Jalae village, 45-year-old Natee Lafu, of the Lahu tribe, says the home stay program has definitely benefited her family. Mrs. Natee says life is better than before the program began. Now her family earns money. Most importantly, she says, her family is kept together and safe.

Mrs. Natee says not everyone has been so lucky. Many women and girls were lured away by promises of jobs in the city. Some disappeared.

In 2004, the Thai government made combating human trafficking a policy priority - pledging to overhaul laws and to create a special police task force to crackdown on corrupt politicians and border police.

In another northern Thai village of Baan Ajar, the sun is setting and the Akha hill tribe people are lighting fires along the dirt road to keep warm ahead of the approaching night.

Beyond the afternoon shadows, the trafficking gangs still lie in wait hoping to lure victims away from their homes with promises of wealth and good jobs. But for the moment the tourists are coming, keeping poverty at bay, amid hopes for a better future.