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“The stuff you see over there isn’t pleasant and you can’t unsee it.” – Sean Hatwell on leading human trafficking and child sexual exploitation investigations in Thailand.

Police Association member Sean Hatwell always wanted to be a police officer so, after completing a degree in psychology and sociology in Auckland, he joined Police at the age of 23.

Sean cut his teeth on the frontline in Mt Wellington after graduating in 2008. After 18 months, he moved into the CIB. Then, in early 2016, when he was working as a detective with the National Organised Crime Group (NOCG), an opportunity arose to lead human trafficking and child sexual exploitation investigations in Thailand.

I never really did my OE, so when the opportunity came up to work offshore and do something within my skillset, I jumped at the chance. I had travelled to Southeast Asia extensively before taking up the role as head of LIFT International’s organised crime team in Chiang Mai. It was a nice chance to live there for a bit – and an adventure. When I learnt more about the trafficking going on, it was kind of hard to look away.

We did about 50 to 70 investigations over 3½ years – from people smuggling to forced labour cases, but primarily sex trafficking. Some of the work was given to us and others we discovered and investigated ourselves.

In one of these cases, babies were being trafficked across the Thai border to be used for begging in tourist areas. They’d pair women up with these babies and pretend they were their mothers. We spent about a year investigating that and it was one of the first prosecutions of its kind there in which DNA technology was used. It proved the kids weren't related to the women holding them. We were then able to train and upskill the local cops on this practice.

At the time, most of their investigations were focused on low hanging fruit like finding 17-year-olds in brothels and bars, because it's easy to prove, quick, and cost effective. We could provide both experience and resource in these more complex investigations, which set the target slightly higher. After two or three prosecutions – for which the sentences were huge – the fact that people were being prosecuted was a deterrent to other traffickers.


Shepherding change

The investigation that sticks out the most for me was Operation Shepherd, where African women were being trafficked into Thailand. No-one really wanted to do anything about it. These women – hundreds of them – were working on the streets of central Bangkok and other redlight districts for staggeringly low prices and very little demand. They were treated really poorly by traffickers and worked in quite dangerous conditions; we heard of women being murdered by clients and it being ruled a suicide by the authorities.

These women didn’t fit the bill of what you traditionally think of as victims of sex trafficking – locked in the back of a brothel or being underage. They had their passports available to them. But they were scared to leave because they ‘owed’ money. They’d get to Thailand through the traffickers, have a $10,000 debt imposed on them and have to work it off at $20 an hour, with clients very hard to come by.

We couldn't go and outright interview these women, so we went undercover as clients to get them talking about where and how they got their visas. We uncovered that there was corruption in an offshore embassy of a neighbouring African country. The women weren’t using their home consulate, they were sending them to another country to be stamped for tourist visas which they shouldn't have qualified for. So we weren’t only collecting information about the women, it was also about how they got there and trying to close the loopholes to stop more of them coming.

We were able to get one victim to come forward who had worked for eight years before she paid off her debt – the day she paid off her debt, her trafficker turned her over to immigration and she was arrested for overstaying. She had a big scar down her face that had been given to her by her trafficker because she didn’t want to work.

We hassled the Thai police agencies for about a year before we found someone willing to take on the case. The traffickers realised, “Holy shit, people are actually being prosecuted for this now”, so they fled the country, which meant the women were able to leave and were absolved of their debt. Most importantly, the Thai Government made changes to its offshore embassies, so the cost of doing business in Thailand for Africans was higher and it became harder to get a visa. That was important because it was greater than the sum of its parts – potential victims who could have been trafficked from Uganda were no longer able to get visas to get into Thailand. We worked on it for 18 months, which is a pretty hard sell when you're an NGO relying on donor funds. But getting that result in the end was pretty special.

The stuff you see over there isn’t pleasant and you can’t unsee it. The guy who started LIFT International (known then as Nvader) was an ex-Kiwi detective from Christchurch and, as you can imagine, we were dealing with some pretty dark stuff. When he first started out, he’d hit the wall and burnt out at one point and so the organisation now puts a lot of importance on staff welfare to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We had mandated monthly meetings with psychologists, which was good.

Back on home soil

My family and I moved back home to Tauranga towards the end of 2019 after 3½ years in Thailand. The plan was always to hand the role back to the Thais – to train them up to run the NGO. My daughter was turning five so we wanted to get her back for school and it was my time to leave.

Before leaving, I emailed Police recruitment and got a really lukewarm response. It was a little bit of a blood-nose to be honest. I’d literally have to go back as a recruit now because I’ve been out for five years. It’s a shame, because I really enjoyed my time in Police. It seems like such a missed opportunity not to harness the experience and life skills that people bring when they come back to the job because many have upskilled during that time – I’d got a master’s degree while I was away. I enjoyed it, I loved it, I thought I’d be in Police for life.

I ended up getting a job with Immigration New Zealand as an investigator. I was there for 18 months and now work as a consultant, researcher and an ethical labour supply investigator in the private sector, so I guess you could say I’ve sort of come full circle.

When I first came back, I naively thought this stuff probably didn't happen in New Zealand, that it just happened in far-flung, Third World countries and wherever there is a weak rule of law. But the reality is our immigration system is incredibly vulnerable to being exploited, as seen in a lot of media articles recently around the accredited work visas. The wolf is always at the door, unfortunately.

I‘ve had a lot of messages over the years from Police colleagues asking what it was like on the “outside”. I always say that if they are ready to go, then take the leap. There’s a lot of investigative work out there and the NZ Police gold badges are held in very high esteem, both here and around the world.

I’ve got my kids here, which ties me to New Zealand for the next little while, but I’d go back to Asia in a heartbeat. It's a great part of the world to live in and it was such an important time of growth in my career as an investigator – leaving the protective umbrella of NZ Police and having to go out and investigate in the private sector and having to be creative because you didn’t have those statutory powers. It is the best way to learn how to think on your feet and think outside the box.

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