This girl, about 17, was trafficked from Vietnam and sold to a brothel in Cambodia
TTe rescue of seven east European women in Phnom Penh earlier this month highlighted
how internationalised human trafficking has become. Anette Marcher looks at
a worldwide trade that attracts little publicity - unless the victims are young,
attractive and white.
IT'S a bigger business than the arms and weapons trade. It's a lot easier and more
lucrative than drug smuggling. In fact, some say, trafficking in human beings is
surpassed only by the oil industry in magnitude and revenue.
In Cambodia, women and men, children and old people alike are trafficked every day.
Some are abducted and sold into forms of slavery for as little as $30. Others pay
hundreds of dollars to people-smugglers who promise them a better, brighter future
somewhere else. Almost all end up in precarious situations, exploited by rich and
powerful trafficking lords.
The stream of the human trade flows in all directions.
Young girls are brought from their villages in the provinces to brothels in Phnom
Elderly and handicapped people are smuggled to Thailand to work as organized beggars.
The able-bodied end up as slaves working as construction workers or domestic servants.
Chinese laborers are imported to Phnom Penh for sweatshop factory work. Vietnamese
girls are bought to join their Cambodian sisters in the brothels. And Eastern European
women are lured into working as nightclub escort girls - like the five Romanian and
two Moldovan girls rescued from the Best Western Cangi Hotel on August 13.
Human rights activists say it's no surprise that charges still haven't been filed
against hotel owner Richard Chun despite evidence pointing to his involvement in
bringing the girls to Cambodia and subsequently pressuring them to have sex with
Traffickers are reputedly very powerful people with close connections to high-ranking
"I wasn't surprised that the police released Chun; in fact, my jaw dropped when
I heard that they had arrested him in the first place," said one NGO worker
dealing with trafficking issues.
"That's one reason it is so difficult to combat trafficking. A lot of traffickers
are protected. They are connected all the way up."
Some traffickers have international connections. According to Pierre Legros, Coordinator
for AFESIP, an organization that works on trafficking and prostitution, Eastern European
and Russian mafia have a big stake in the trafficking of women for prostitution.
And he fears the mafiosi back in Europe will not be happy that their investment in
the seven girls' trip to Cambodia didn't pay off.
"It is very difficult to reintegrate a girl who has been trafficked by a mafia
organization - and very dangerous. If you don't pay up, you're dead. The Russian
and Romanian mafias are probably among the most dangerous when it comes to trafficking
in women," says Legros.
Although the seven girls are now safely back in their home countries, Legros worries
that they may still be in peril and wants their case followed up there.
The most widespread type of human trafficking remains the steady flow of young girls
from the provinces to brothels in Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC) handles around 300 trafficking cases every
year, most of them involving Cambodian girls sold or forced into prostitution.
"Usually the girls are from rural areas. They are tempted by offers of jobs
with a high pay in the city and don't know they will go to a brothel. Sometimes the
parents pay for their daughter's transport to the town, sometimes the pimp pays,"
said CWCC executive director Chanthol Oung.
Upon arrival at the brothel most girls refuse to have sex with the customers, so
the brothel owner and mama-san start to "break in" their new arrivals.
"The girls are locked up," says Oung. "They are threatened. They get
no food. Most of them are beaten. Then they are often sold to a rich man for a whole
week. Some customers pay up to $500 to $700 for a week. After that the price for
sexual services drops to 2000 to 7000 riel."
The traffickers themselves get paid by the brothel owners. Often they have local
networks in the provinces, deploying recruiters in various villages.
In a survey of girls rescued from brothels, CWCC found that 57 percent said they
had been cheated by promises of a good job, 11 percent said they had been sold to
the brothel by their parents or their boyfriend and 0.5 percent said they had been
It is not uncommon for girls to be sold to brothels by close relatives. Poor families
do it usually for the money. But a boyfriend selling his fiancée is also common.
At AFESIP's shelter for rescued sex workers in Phnom Penh there was recently a girl
who had been sold to a brothel twice. The first time she was trafficked from her
home village. Then she was rescued by AFESIP, given a basic education and secured
a job at a garment factory.
She also found a new boyfriend. One day he asked her out for a ride - and took her
straight back to Tuol Kok where he sold her to a brothel.
"How can you explain to these girls that society is rotten?" asks Legros.
"They believe in their mothers. They believe in their boyfriends. How can they
ever trust anybody again?"
Andreas Lind of the International Organization for Migration says human trafficking
in Cambodia is much more than young girls being sold into prostitution.
"In terms of the region, Cambodia is one of the few countries where you find
all forms of trafficking," says Lind. "Right now there is a lot of focus
on prostitution in connection with trafficking. Probably because it is such an extreme
form of exploitation and because of the magnitude of the problem here."
"But I think the focus will expand to cover other things. Adoptions may be next.
Also, one could fear that the problem of trafficking in domestic servants could be
bigger than prostitution."
An IOM study from 1999 found women and children recruited for household work and
other domestic duties in both Thailand and Cambodia. One woman had trafficked a 5-year-old
girl destined to become a playmate for a rich Thai family's daughter. Cambodian household
workers are also reportedly trafficked to Malaysia.
Domestic workers often find themselves in abusive and slave-like conditions. Earlier
this year a 15-year-old girl was promised work as a nanny and housemaid in her hometown
Battambang. The girl ended up in a house in Phnom Penh, where she was locked up,
beaten with a hammer, stabbed in the legs with a screwdriver and scalded with hot
water by her employer.
On July 21, the housemaid won a milestone court case against her tormentor.
Another form of trafficking that receives less public attention is the organized
begging rings. Children as young as three years and old people are popular victims,
who are usually smuggled into Thailand through the border at Poipet.
Organizers often keep the children out on the streets late into the night but keep
the money for themselves. Also, the beggars are made to appear as scruffy and pathetic
"They don't get enough food, so they look thin and pitiful. They are also beaten
and tortured a lot or locked up in dark rooms," says Oung, who has also seen
cases of children who have deliberately been disabled by polio injections or maimed
Last year CWCC rescued three children of four, five and six years old from a begging
ring in Bangkok. Two were a brother and a sister whose very poor mother had agreed
to let her children go to Thailand to earn money. The third child had been abducted
from her family.
The trafficker of the children was later prosecuted and sentenced to 15 years' jail.
However, as with the Best Western Cangi Hotel case, prosecutions for trafficking
offenses are rare. And even if a case does go to court, the outcome is uncertain.
AFESIP had one incident where the victim, a trafficked Vietnamese sex worker, disappeared
from the courthouse the day her case was heard. The girl was spotted at the court
in the company of two unknown men but nobody has seen her since.
It is not unusual for pimps to try to reclaim the girls after they've been rescued.
Legros says AFESIP often have armed pimps showing up outside the shelter gates, demanding
to get their girls back.
Legros also points to incidents where police officers have tried to reclaim girls
or have warned brothel owners before a rescue attempt. Trafficking and prostitution
often subsidize military police and police officers who get paid as little as $10
And trafficking in human beings is an all too easy way to make money, says Legros.
"Imagine this: At five o'clock you bring a virgin girl to a brothel. At six
o'clock she has her first customer. At seven it's all over and you have made $400
in less than two hours."