Bangkok • Pope Francis called Thursday for women and children to be protected from exploitation, abuse and enslavement as he began a busy two days of meetings in Thailand, where human trafficking and forced prostitution help fuel the sexual tourism industry.
Francis pleaded for action against one of the region’s greatest scourges at the start of his weeklong visit to Asia.
He praised the Thai government’s efforts to fight human trafficking in a speech delivered at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s Government House offices. But he appealed for greater international commitment to protect women and children “who are violated and exposed to every form of exploitation, enslavement, violence and abuse.”
He called for ways to “uproot this evil and to provide ways to restore their dignity.”
“The future of our peoples,” he said, “is linked in large measure to the way we will ensure a dignified future to our children.”
The United Nations considers Thailand a key trafficking destination as well as a source of forced labor and sex slaves, who are trafficked at home or abroad. The U.N. drug and crime agency said in a report this summer that trafficking for sexual exploitation accounted for 79% of all trafficking cases in Thailand from 2014-2017. Of the 1,248 victims detected, 70% were underage girls, the report said, citing data from Thai authorities.
The U.N. says sex tourism is a factor in fueling the trafficking of more victims, who often are forced, coerced or deceived into sexual exploitation.
The U.S. State Department has faulted Thailand for failing to fully crack down on traffickers who induce young Thai girls into pornography, as well as the exploitation, including via debt bondage, of migrant workers in commercial fishing enterprises.
The Thai government has insisted it has made significant progress and has vowed continued cooperation with international bodies.
Prayuth didn’t make any reference to the problem in his remarks to Francis, though he stressed that Thailand had made great strides in promoting human rights.
“We have sought to strengthen the family institution and ensure equal opportunities for all groups in society, especially women and children,” he told Francis after a brief private meeting.
The pope has made the fight against human trafficking one of the cornerstones of his tenure, calling it a crime against humanity. Under his express wishes, the Vatican has hosted several conferences on eradicating trafficking, featuring women freed from forced prostitution. And during his papacy, an international network of religious sisters, Talitha Kum, has gained greater prominence after decades of quiet efforts to rescue women from traffickers.
In his comments made alongside Thai authorities, Francis thanked the country for its historical role welcoming migrants from across the region, who are drawn to Thailand for economic opportunities. But he said all countries must do more to resolve the conflicts that fuel the “tragic exodus” of forced migration.
While Thailand has a tradition of taking in migrant laborers and sheltering people fleeing from danger in neighboring countries, it also has a checkered history of deporting foreigners who are in the country illegally, even if they are recognized by the United Nations as refugees who are fleeing persecution. In addition, up until it signed an agreement with the U.N. refugee agency this year, Thailand held child asylum seekers in detention centers.
Francis had a busy schedule on his first full day of activities of his weeklong tour, which will also take him to Japan. Small crowds of Thais greeted him at each destination, including a few hundred who gathered under a scorching sun to wait for Francis at the St. Louis Hospital, a private nonprofit founded by then-Siam’s Catholic archbishop in 1898.
Piyanut Phatpirom, a Thai Catholic, said Francis’ visit would help strengthen her faith.
“I intend to follow the teachings that the pope has given, for example kindness, mercy, loving others, having kindness, helping those in need,“ she said.
Francis also met with Thailand’s Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism at the Wat Ratchabophit temple and dutifully followed the custom to remove his shoes before entering the jeweled, intimate room.
Amid the scent of fresh roses inside, Francis committed the Catholic Church to working more with Thailand’s majority Buddhists to launch projects to care for the poor and the environment, “our much-abused common home.”
There are fewer than 400,000 Catholics among Thailand’s 65 million people, yet Francis said they nevertheless have enjoyed freedom in their religious practice. On that note, he gave the patriarch a copy of his much-vaunted human fraternity document calling for interfaith solidarity, which he penned this year with the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni Muslim learning.
Francis’ visit was the second time a pope has called on the spiritual leader of Thailand’s Buddhists, after St. John Paul II in 1984. And Francis cited one of John Paul’s documents in praising the influence of faith on Thai culture.
“The majority of Thais have drunk deeply from the sources of Buddhism, which have imbued their way of venerating life and their ancestors, and leading a sober lifestyle based on contemplation, detachment, hard work and discipline,” he said, speaking with his second cousin by his side — an Argentine nun who has worked in Thailand since the 1960s and is serving as his interpreter for the trip.
Francis wraps up the day with a private audience with Thailand’s recently crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and a public Mass at Bangkok’s National Stadium.
Friday’s agenda is far more church-based, with meetings with local Thai clergy, Asian bishops and separately a meeting with leaders of different Christian denominations and other faiths.
AP video producer Emily Wang contributed.