Sex trade and forced labour thrive on Asia’s illegal migrants

Sonia Kohlbacher
The Australian, 23 March 2015

“P” was only 17 when she was lured from her provincial Cambodian home to Asia’s sex trade. But she is also one of the few to escape.

Coaxed from her poor family with the offer of a wage and the chance to work in the capital, Phnom Penh, selling coffee, she arrived only to find that she had been forced into prostitution for a monthly wage of about $2.

Two months later, anti-trafficking police raided the brothel where P was being forced to ­service up to 10 local and foreign clients per day.

She was referred to World Vision­’s Neavea Tmey rehabilit­ation centre and, after 18 months of ­trauma recovery, was ready to reintegrate with family in February last year.

Now 20, P, who has asked not to be named, is training as a hairdresser as part of the reintegration program, which teaches women to be ­financially independent. She hopes to open her own salon.

“I’m happy to make other people beautiful and for me, by practising to make other people beautiful, I learn more,” she tells The Australian.

In 2012, when P left behind her sick and elderly parents — who she had been caring for in their floating home on one of the many ­waterways in the Kampong Chhnang province — she was offere­d the rare chance of a wage.

Now she earns $155 per month.

“I want to learn more from the others like my friends and also the shop owner,” she says. “I want to have my own hair salon (in Phnom Penh) and have many staff but I am waiting to train myself so I can manage other ­people.”

Restrictive government mig­ration policies across countries in the greater Mekong region, including­ Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, China and Laos, were forcing people to ­migrate illegally, according to World Vision’s End Trafficking In Persons regional program manager, John Whan Yoon.

Mr Yoon says illegal migration often resulted in people being trafficked into forced labour.

“What we observe as trafficking is taking place within the context of irregular or undocumented migration,” he says.

“Because it is so difficult and because is it so costly and time-consuming (to migrate legally), people are still choosing to migrate in a non-documented fashion.

“The policies are still quite restrictive, it is difficult, expensive, and it takes a lot of time for an indiv­idual to try to apply for legal ­labour migration.

“We really need to be able to understand the migration routes and how people that are migrating are doing so in ways that are risky, that put them into vulnerable ­situations and possibly become trafficked.”

With 50 per cent of ETIP’s funding coming from the Australian aid program, rehabilitations such as P’s are now at risk due to the federal government’s aid cuts.

A study into the case files of 1229 human-trafficking victims from nine Thai anti-trafficking shelters between 2008 and 2012 found that 39 per cent were trafficked into sex work.

The study also found 21 per cent of the human-trafficking cases that were analysed resulted in forced labour on fishing boats and 9 per cent in the industrial sector.

Neavea Tmey Centre case manager Thaknin Solavy has seen many young women transform from victims of sexual exploitation to survivors of Asia’s human-trafficking trade, including P.

“After she was referred to the centre her family wanted her to go back home and just take care of the household chores,” she says.

“But P advocated her parents that she wanted to be a hairdresser.”

This article was originally published here.

Sonia Kohlbacher was in Cambodia for the 2015 International Development Journalism Fellowship.