Rise in Missing Minors Stirs Fear Among Internet Savvy Parents

By Tin Htet Paing 13 January 2016

RANGOON — Mee Mee is a 30-year-old housewife, and the mother of twin girls, aged five. They live in Rangoon, where she takes them to primary school every day, and in the afternoon she waits for class to end so she can escort them safely home.

Alarmed by rumors of human trafficking circulating on social media, she has begun keeping a closer eye on her daughters; the rate of missing persons under the age of 18 has reached new heights, and speculation about the causes has run rampant.

“I feel very worried about my kids’ security,” Mee Mee told The Irrawaddy. “I don’t let them go anywhere with anyone who is not a relative.”

Nearly 100 people below the age of 18 went missing in December of last year, according to police figures, a staggering percentage of the 251 total reported missing persons cases that month.

A police official told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that out of 2,817 cases nationwide in 2015, a total of 911 had been located and returned safely to their homes. That amounts to about 32 percent; the remainder are still “under investigation.”

Rangoon, Burma’s largest city and its former capital, had the highest number of cases at 1,618, followed by Mandalay with 277, according to the Myanmar Police Force.

While the numbers are alarming, officials say that social media users are spreading panic online. Rumors about the frequency and causes of disappearance may have created a collective paranoia about human trafficking, one officer told The Irrawaddy.

Rangoon Division’s Deputy Police Commissioner Win Bo said that while the causes were complex and varied, many minors were found to have left home of their own volition—either to escape abuse or seek work. Others appear to have simply gotten lost on city streets.

“As per our investigations,” Win Bo said, “the common reasons were that they no longer desired to stay at their homes, or they wanted to go out and work.”

In cases where the missing person was aged between 15 and 20, he said, the reasons for disappearance included domestic violence and a desire to work. Some were found to have been victims of human trafficking, while some ran away with their partners.

According to the local anti-human trafficking police task force, of 640 reported trafficking victims last year, 157 of them were found to be minors—roughly 25 percent. An official from the task force, Khin Maung Hla, said that many social media users are exaggerating the prevalence of trafficking as the cause of child disappearances.

“In some scenarios, relationships between the children and parents became problematic and children ended up running away from home,” he said, explaining that while concern about child trafficking is within reason, the threat may not be as dire as people perceive it to be.

A rise in children leaving home voluntarily to seek work does leave many vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking, he said, warning of the possibility of children “becoming trafficking victims without realizing it.”

The official admitted that some minors seeking employment “could become forced laborers or sex workers.”

Such tragedies do occur, and anti-trafficking authorities said they are working with NGOs to suppress the problem. As recently as Monday, the anti-trafficking task force teamed up with Save the Children to apprehend a 40-year-old woman accused of keeping four underage girls captive as sex workers. She will face charges under Burma’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, Khin Maung Hla said.

The official further stressed the importance of continued fact-based awareness efforts, geared toward informing the public of trafficking patterns without causing undue alarm. Local and international NGOs, the Burmese government and UN agencies are coordinating toward this end, he said.