Used and abused: Child trafficking in Southeast Asia

ECPAT office
ECPAT office (© Eric Beauchemin)

Throughout Southeast Asia, tens of thousands of children are being trafficked. Most go to neighbouring countries, but they can be sent as far away as South Korea or Australia. Because human trafficking is illegal, no one knows the exact number of children who are being exploited. Many of them end up in the sex industry.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin
Broadcast: April 21, 2006


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Used and Abused: Child Trafficking in southeast Asia”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

The number that is usually mentioned by agencies that one-third of the global trafficking around the world takes place here in Asia.

If there’s one thing that people remember about trafficking it’s about somebody exploiting somebody to make a profit for themselves. That’s what it’s about.

Ages ranging from approximately 9 to 15, 16, 17. Younger children are also involved but – down to 5, 6, 7 – and even younger than that in terms of some street-begging gangs and what not.

Throughout southeast Asia, tens of thousands of children are being trafficked. Most go to neighbouring countries, but they can be sent as far away as South Korea or Australia. Because human trafficking is illegal, no one knows the exact number of children who are being exploited, says Alessia Altamura, the trafficking project coordinator of ECPAT International, a network of organisations fighting to eliminate the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

The number that is usually mentioned by agencies is that one-third of the global trafficking around the world takes place here in Asia. And it seems in this region, southeast Asia, the number of victims of trafficking ranges between 200,000 and 225,000. So it’s a huge number. They usually say that 30% of the victims are children. But, as I said, we prefer not to provide any statistics.

The International Labour Organisation or ILO, also shies away from providing any detailed information about the scale of the trafficking of children. Allan Dow is the communications officer for the ILO’s project to combat the trafficking of children and women in the region.

The problem of trafficking is…it’s a vexing problem is what it is. To try to put numbers on it, we can’t do that because we simply don’t know from country to country how many people are trafficked. But what we do see through anecdotal evidence and other qualitative studies that have been done by us and by others that the problem is growing. We’re seeing more and more people ending up in centres, in other words police raids, other things. And what we’re finding is that more and more often the people are young people and quite often that they are girls and young women.

To get an idea of the scale of the problem, I went out one evening with Dr. Sophal Kang who has been working with prostitutes in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. We spent over an hour in a neighbourhood that has many foreign sex workers, but none of them were under the age of 18. We were told that the police had recently raided the area and sent all the underage prostitutes back to their country. In a brothel elsewhere in the city, we spoke to several girls, including 18-year-old Bong. She arrived from Vietnam in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh a year ago.

She find for money. EB: But couldn’t she do the same work in Vietnam? She living in the countryside in Vietnam and she could not do as a sex worker. She has one girlfriend who used to work here as a sex worker, and then she followed her girlfriend to come work here. EB: But it’s still not trafficking. Are you sure? EB: Yeah.

When I told Dr. Kang that this was not a case of trafficking, since Bong had decided to go Phnom Penh on her way, he disagreed.

Many authorities, many NGOs, they are working…

He explained to me that all the foreign prostitutes had been well educated by the authorities and charities about trafficking. As a result, virtually no one is willing to admit that they’ve been trafficked. Instead they invent stories to explain why they’re working as prostitutes in a foreign country. When I pushed Bong a bit more, I got a totally different story.

She owed some money with her neighbourhood, so she had to come work here. When one day she can earn some money and then pay the debt, maybe she will return. EB: How big is the debt? A few hundred dollars, she told me. EB: Why did you get such a big debt? Her mother owed the money from the neighbour. And then her mother got sick. Her family is poor. She hide, but I think her mother trafficked her to here and take the money from the brothel owner and let her work to pay the debt. EB: How much do you earn on a normal evening? Around 15 dollars. EB: How much have you been able to save so far? She never earned some money because all the money must be paid to the people that her mother owe the money. EB: But how much have you been able to pay off so far? 2.5 dollars per client. She can find 6 clients per day. So half must be taken by the brothel owner and she earn half. So that means she earns 7.5 dollars per day. Some clients give her 2000 riels, 3000 riels or 1 dollar, so she can earn a few dollars to buy the food, to buy the clothes. EB: But the 7.5 dollars she earns per day, she sends all of that to Vietnam. Her mother and she earn the money from the brothel owner. So all the income she receives goes to the brothel owner. EB: So she receives nothing. The only money you get are the tips. That’s how you survive. Only the tips she can survive. She can buy some clothes.

Dr. Kang has spoken extensively with dozens of foreign sex workers and said that Bong’s story was typical of the teenage girls who are being trafficked in the region. According to Rafaël Renaud of Aidé Tous, the International Association for Development, Tourism and Health, what’s even more worrying are the growing numbers of young teenagers who are being trafficked in southeast Asia.

Rafaël Renaud, Aidé Tous
Rafaël Renaud, Aidé Tous (© Eric Beauchemin)

Sexual tourism is pushing down the age of girls who enter prostitution. You have to know that there are two types of clients: paedophiles and virginity seekers. So you always need new girls and they have to be younger. That was the first result of our study. The second was about risky behaviour. More than 95% of the prostitutes in Phnom Penh had had sex with a tourist did not use a condom because the tourists refused.

Poverty is the main reason why young girls are trafficked and wind up in the sex industry, but it’s not the only one, says Alessia Altamura of ECPAT.

Consumerism for example is another of the root causes. In the past cases there were cases of children that were sold to agents, traffickers, just for the television. EB: What do you mean just for the television? Yeah, because parents would like to buy consumer goods and sometimes they sell children just for this reason. In the past for example, there were a lot of children deceived or lured but it seems that now the situation is changing. Some of them are aware that they will work in the sex industry, but they prefer enough to earn a mobile phone or again a television or a house. Also for this reason they can fall into trafficking chain.

The mass media, says Allan Dow of the International Labour Organisation, is also luring young people in rural areas into dreaming of a better life.

If you are in a small village in a border area of the greater Mekong sub-region in northern Thailand or across the border into Laos or even in a small village in Hunan, China and your family fairly poor and you see these images, these soap operas every night of these people who are very wealthy and they’re driving around in Mercedes Benzes and they’re living in these beautiful, big villas in the capital city. Everybody is beautiful. The women are all dressed in beautiful clothes, and…that’s going to have an impact on you. And you’re going to wonder that maybe you could have a part of that, you could have a piece of that action. It is a driving force and it sends young women out of the villages and teenage girls out of their villages. So if you go to the city, maybe you can help out your family that way, by getting a job there and you’ll be able to take part in some of this wondrous attraction of the big city. We can’t say that that is the driving force, but it’s certainly a driving force.

There are a number of other factors that contribute to the sex industry and child trafficking, says Alessia Altemura of ECPAT. Among them is the low position women have in Asian society.

Alissia Altemura of ECPAT
Alissia Altemura of ECPAT (© Eric Beauchemin)

If families have to choose which of the two children – the daughter or the son have to study – they prefer to let the son study and the girl has to stay at home. So the lack of job opportunities of course can be another cause. Here in Thailand there is also the problem of the lack of citizenship for children belonging to the hill-tribes communities. They are considered stateless and for this reason of course you don’t exist. If you don’t have a birth registration you don’t exist and so you can easily become a victim of trafficking. In Thailand also the fact that in this society was widespread and was also legal until 1935, if I’m not wrong. So it’s normal for a man to have more than one woman so it’s justified also by religion, and it’s also considered something normal because the phenomenon of prostitution and also of child prostitution exists here in Thailand since the beginning of last century when Chinese migrants came here and in that period there was a trade of Chinese girls in Thailand. They were trafficked from China to Thailand to serve these Chinese migrants. But then the Americans arrived with the Vietnam war and tourists came and so for all these reasons – I’m talking about Thailand because we are based here – but these kind of dynamics can be found also in other national contexts, in Cambodia for example.

In Phnom Penh, there are thousands of foreign prostitutes. According to Rafaël Renaud of Aidé Tous, many of them were trafficked at a young age.

What we can say is that these girls are 13, 14, 15 years old. Here in Phnom Penh, there are various communities of foreign prostitutes. There’s an infamous brothel in the north of Phnom Penh where you can find many Vietnamese. Most of them are from rural regions and were trafficked. EB: What happens? It’s simple. They’re promised work in a garment factory. And when they arrive here, they find out that they have to work in a bordello. It’s happens quite a lot.

The media frequently report cases of Western paedophiles who travel to Asia in search of girls, but according to Allan Dow, they are in fact a small minority.

What our research has shown is that often, in fact in most cases, the exploiters are not actually Western tourists or tourists from developed countries. They are in fact local people from that region or that country that are actually creating the demand, the vast majority we believe. So in a sense part of our concern is that there are stereotypes that have developed and that’s not necessarily a very healthy thing. We shouldn’t just be concentrating on one particular group. We need to see this in a bigger picture. We need to see a broader sense of what’s happening here. It’s not just sex. It’s labour exploitation too. It’s not just girls. It’s boys too.

According to some research, it’s 50-50. But also the work I’m doing here, I have the impression girls is a higher number than boys. EB: But again, how can you really know the situation and map everything? In the past there were a lot of cases, and still there are a lot of cases of child sex tourists going with boys. And it depends also on the region. In South Asia, in Nepal and so on, there were cases of boy prostitution. So it’s also widespread. It seems that in Chang Rai the number of boys involved in prostitution is increasing, and they come also from Myanmar. There were also some newspaper articles in the past. So I would say also boys. Most of them are girls, but also boys are increasingly involved in the sex industry.

Many of the children wind up in the sex industry are trafficked by criminal networks.

We know for example for children trafficked towards countries that are very far from the region – because there are victims also trafficked to New Zealand, to Australia, to Japan, to United States and in these cases the involvement of organised crime is sure. While for trafficking in the region, there are small-scale organised crime networks and sometimes there is not even the involvement of organised crime. So it depends also on how far the victims are trafficked.

Often though the trafficker is a lone individual. The stereotypical image of a trafficker is a man who drives around the border area with a cigarette in his mouth and dark sunglasses. But the reality is quite different.

The person who’s the recruiter is often a woman. A well-dressed woman will approach a group of girls or a single girl on her own and befriend her and tell her, oh, you’re looking for work. Well, you know, what a coincidence because I have a friend who runs a restaurant and is looking for somebody to wash dishes. It actually pays pretty well and he’s a nice guy. Do you want me to introduce you? Now of course what happens is she takes the girl to an employer who then pays her a commission, a finder’s fee for bringing this girl, and the girl ends up in sexual or labour exploitative situations.

You’re listening to Used and Abused, a documentary from Radio Netherlands. No one has any precise figures, but it’s believed that a majority of the children who are trafficked end up working in sweat shops or in dangerous professions. The victims, says Allan Dow, often come from poor families and are in search of a better life in a neighbouring country.

They’re going from say a village in Laos, they’re crossing the border into Thailand because the language is very similar. They’re looking for work and during the migration, they’re approached by somebody who’s offering them a job. And of course the job turns out to be a fictitious job and they end up in brothels or they end up in karaoke bars or massage parlours or they end up in factories, illegal factories, sweat shops if you like, making jeans, making T-shirts, packaging factories, small sort of shop-house type illegal places where they’re being abused. They’re being locked up 8 or 9 hours a day and then they’re being worked 12, 14, 15 hours a day for very little pay and sometimes no pay.

Children don’t only wind up in factories. Many of the boys are put to work in the fishing fleets of Cambodia and Thailand.

This is very dangerous work. The fishing fleets find it difficult to get people to go on these boats and that’s where the demand exists. So the employer goes out, is willing to pay a fee to the trafficker who will find them somebody who will work on the boats. Now the person may or may not want to work on the boat, but these boats they go out and they go out for months, some of them. But I would just make the point that we need to keep in mind that it’s not just sexual exploitation. It is labour exploitation as well, and if anybody remembers one thing about human trafficking is that it’s a fairly complicated issue. People mix it up with human smuggling and human trafficking. They are two different things. And if there’s one thing that people remember about trafficking it’s about somebody exploiting somebody to make a profit for themselves. That’s what it’s about. It’s about an intermediary party finding an exploitative employment situation that they can profit from.

Children and their parents are well aware that there are greener pastures over the horizon. According to Lance Bonneau, the senior programme development officer of the International Organisation for Migration in Bangkok, many trafficking victims wind up in Thailand, the region’s economic powerhouse.

Lance Bonneau, International Organisation for Migration
Lance Bonneau, International Organisation for Migration (© Eric Beauchemin)

Demographically, if you look at Thailand, as compared to its neighbouring countries, primarily Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, those countries are showing a population of under 18 of nearly 40%, whereas in Thailand it’s approximately 23 – 25% or so, and you see that the workforce, the potential workforce coming from neighbouring countries is quite young. And combined with the fact that in Thailand, the state of development has seen a rapid economic growth, and sustained economic growth over the past 15 years or so. Thais are moving up and working into positions that require more training, more education and so on and leaving a void in the section of unskilled labour. And unfortunately a lot of that unskilled labour is supported through either regular migration, trafficking or exploitative labour type situations that are very closely approximate trafficking.

Allan Dow of the International Labour Organisation agrees that economics are a key factor behind the growing numbers of adults and children being trafficked.

It’s affected by things such as globalisation, the opening up of market places, the need for companies to have a flexible, movable workforce, and this demand for migrant workers is what creates the vulnerability because migrant workers from one part of a poorer country know if they travel to another part of another country, for example across the border into Thailand, that they may be able to get a better job and earn more money. The problem is if they haven’t properly researched where they’re going, if they’re not quite sure what’s going to be at the destination, that creates the vulnerability where they can be approached and where they can be exploited.

Many of the trafficking victims are quite young, says Lance Bonneau of the International Organisation for Migration. The IOM has a project to help the children get back to their country of origin.

A lot of young people are coming through our programmes and we’re supporting for return and reintegration ages ranging from approximately 9 to 15, 16, 17. Younger children are also involved but – down to 5, 6, 7 – and even younger than that in terms of when you look at some street-begging gangs and what not. Sometimes very young children are planted with other adult beggars to try to gain sympathy and what not. Now sometimes there is a relationship between the mother and the child. It’s not always the case. So we do see even the trafficking of very, very young children or certainly the exploitation of very young children through this industry of street begging.

14-year-old Ma Su Ka was one of the thousands of Cambodian children who wound up in the Thai capital. She was born and raised in Poipet, a town near the border with Thailand.

Ma Su Ka
Ma Su Ka (© Eric Beauchemin)

What she remembers is that she was sold by her mother when she was 5 years old. EB: How did you know that was your age? Did your mother tell you? Actually, she was living with the person who bought her from the mother. When she got older, the person told her about why they have her. That’s why she knows that she was sold by the mother. EB: How did you feel when this happened? When I heard about that, I was so nervous, and I cried alone. But I cannot let the others know that I cry because I am afraid that I might be sold to other people. EB: So, what did you have to do when you were living with this woman? She was living with a woman from 5 years old to 10 years old. She lives in the house, doing cooking, washing clothes. When she turned 10, the woman sold her to another person and then she moved to live in Bangkok. She sold candies and snacks and so on. EB: She was living there with someone also or she was living on the streets? She lives with another person who had a house in Bangkok. They made her to earn money, and if she could not earn money, they beat her. EB: Did you ever get a chance to go to school? No, she did not go to school. EB: How long did you stay with that family in Bangkok? From 10 till she was around 13 or 14. EB: How did you get away from the family? When she was selling candy, the Thai police saw her and then arrest her. The Thai police sent her to jail for about 1 or 2 months, and then Thai police who can speak Khmer sent her back here. She lived here for a while and then she decided to escape from here and she moved to Poipet again to live on the street and when she was living on the street, she met the woman who bought her. The woman who bought her sold her again to Bangkok and she moved to Bangkok again. Finally, she was arrested by Thai police, and the Thai police sent her back here again. EB: Do you plan to stay here now? So now she decides not to go anywhere anymore. She sees that her life is good here. Here she can have proper education. Nowhere is better than here.

Ma Su Ka now lives in a centre in Cambodia for children who have been trafficked. She’s now going to school and hopes to become a dance teacher. But many children, says Allan Dow, are unable to escape.

Maybe they can’t speak the language or not speak it very well. They don’t trust the police. Maybe the employer has told them that if you are to go to the police, what will happen is that they will arrest you, they will deport you, they will send you back to your home country. You won’t have any money. They might tell them that they’ll rape you or they’ll basically frighten them. And/or the employer themselves will threaten the victim, saying if you leave, we’ll find you. We’ll beat you. We’ll bring you back here, or we know where your family lives. We’ll hurt your family members. So they’re under constant threat and they’re under constant pressure, constant stress and often they are locked in the premises anyway and can’t escape.

Other children don’t even try to escape because they know they were rented out by their parents. Typically, says Lance Bonneau, the parents reach an agreement with the trafficker to find a job for the child for 6 months or a year. Both the child and the parents are under the misapprehension that they will receive the child’s pay.

Unfortunately, when we look at cases of trafficking, all too often it’s a false arrangement and what happens is that the children work in a situation where they don’t even realise that they’re being exploited because there’s a belief that payments are taking place, either being sent to the family or will be paid in 3 months time or 6 months time, and what we find out is that often times, there’s no payment at all. It makes it very difficult because the children themselves who feel that they’re helping their family, they’re working hard, they’re suffering through very difficult circumstances. When they’re rescued by police or immigration or NGOs and taken from that situation, they often have a difficult time realising that all the work they’ve been doing is for naught. That money hasn’t gone back to their families at home and that they’ve been exploited. And it’s actually one of the challenges when we try to work on reintegrating children with families, often times the children are feeling that they’ve somehow failed.

The International Organisation for Migration and many non-governmental groups run programmes to get the child trafficking victims back to their families in their home country. The IOM works very closely with government agencies to ensure that the children receive the proper protection and care.

They would be referred to a shelter where they would be provided with accommodation, food, a basic health assessment, psycho-social support and counselling. Information would be taken about their circumstances to determine if they could be returned to their families in the home country. Family tracing is done through partner agencies to make sure that families somehow weren’t complicit either knowingly or unknowingly to the trafficking situation and that they understand the circumstances so that they can receive the children back. If it comes to light that the family environment is not conducive for reintegration, then efforts are made to find support through other shelters, through other care providers and ongoing process continues of counselling with the family, etc.

Unfortunately, says Alisia Altemuro of ECPAT, once the children return home, they disappear from the radar screen of non-governmental organisations.

By law – they have to be sent back to their countries, and the problem is that sometimes – but maybe it’s better if I say most of the times – we don’t know which is the destiny of these children. There is no follow-up. Why not? Because it means to have a long-term strategy and most of the time we don’t have a long-term strategy because long-term strategy means also allocation of funds, so following a child for many years, not only for the first year after repatriation means spending a lot of funds.

Child trafficking is so widespread and pervasive in south-east Asia that it’s virtually impossible to stamp out the practice. But organisations are trying to educate people in the Mekong sub-region. The ILO, for example, is working in 5 countries, talking to national and local politicians about reducing trafficking. In addition, it runs income-generating projects to give teenagers and adults reasons to stay home.

We also do it person-to-person and in small groups in villages themselves. We develop information kits for people who are thinking about migrating to let them know what they should be aware of. If we can get directly into the mind of a migrant or a young person before they go and explain to them some of the dangers and risks that they are facing, that might just be one more person that we prevented being trafficked.

Slowly, says Alisia Altemura of ECPAT, the situation is beginning to improve.

The situation is getting better. For example, here in Thailand, we have now pretty good laws against trafficking, even though the penalty for the trafficker are not so severe. But the fact is also that law enforcement is really weak everywhere, even though you have good laws, then they are not implemented and they are not implemented for many reasons. Sometimes because of corruption. So police and even politicians are corrupted. I remember the owner of a brothel – it’s a really strange story here in Thailand – and he decided to participate in the political election. All his programme was against corruption, and to show how corruption was widespread in the country, even by all the media and he opened his books and it showed the monthly amount that he had to spend for corruption was very, very high, more than 200,000 euros, just for corruption.

Many of the girls who worked in the sex industry are stigmatised. They often wind up working as prostitutes back in their home country or they’re trafficked again.

The destiny of a person who was trafficked and was prostituted is not a good destiny as you can imagine. Some of them have diseases. Some of them dies because not only drug addiction and of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and so on. So they of course don’t have a good destiny. Sometimes when they are 30 they are already old.

Bong, the 18-year-old Vietnamese prostitute in Phnom Penh, already looks like she’s been through a lot. Faced with a debt that she’s unlikely to ever pay off, she can only dream of a better future.

She says she must be honest because she owes the brothel owner money so she must work to pay off the debt. She did not try to escape. This is not honest for her. EB: When you do pay off the debt, what will you do? When she pays off all the debt, she will go back to Vietnam. EB: What type of work would you like to do there? In the future, if she can earn some money, she will go back to Vietnam and open one small shop to sell fruit or something like that.

“Used and Abused” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.