Overlooking tragedy

Chan is a young woman born in the slums of Phnom Penh to a drug-addicted mother. Media stories about young women from impoverished countries never end well, and readers will be anticipating the outcome: Chan was trafficked into a brothel at the age of fourteen. She was rescued by an NGO after a few months, and spent the next nine years living in aftercare centres that provided her an education. They took her on a tour of the United States and Australia to raise awareness of human trafficking, and introduced her to filmmakers who featured her in their mini-documentaries. Since 2009, Chan has been working at my organisation, which trains young people to manage traumatic stress through yoga, and she is now living independently off the salary she makes by helping others.

Chan approached me one day with a problem. Her six-year-old nephew had been living with her for the past six weeks. His father was a gangster, both his parents were addicted to amphetamines, and they had already sold two of their other children. Afraid for the boy’s welfare, and hopeful that the Cambodian NGO community could help him as they had helped her, she took him in.

Off the top of my head, I could list ten NGOs that would support a girl who has been trafficked, including human rights organisations, aftercare centres and women’s counselling centres. But I could think of nowhere to take a little boy. I approached the anti-trafficking NGO SISHA, but its staff couldn’t find a suitable organisation either. All they could do was contact the parents and organise documentation so that he could be placed in foster care should it become available.

The United Nations’ definition of human trafficking includes not only sexual exploitation but also labour trafficking, organ trafficking, marriage brokering, and selling children and babies, and it acknowledges the victimisation of men and boys as well as women and girls. But because awareness of human trafficking has been heavily influenced by an American ideological campaign to abolish prostitution, media representations tend to equate trafficking with sex work. While an increased interest in sex trafficking has bolstered resources for victims, the nature of the discourse has led to a blind spot in the provision of aid for countries where people are most at risk. As in the case of Chan’s nephew, boys are not receiving support, and the anti-trafficking organisations don’t receive the funding they need to help adults out of the equally horrific reality of labour exploitation.

Recent scholarly literature draws parallels between the current representation of human trafficking and the anti-white-slave campaigns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In both instances, trafficking and prostitution were conflated. Both were underscored by a moral agenda, often linked to the criminalisation of sex work, and both led to internationally enforced legislation that restricted movement of women across borders. Both campaigns also fostered in the public imagination a paradigmatically innocent female victim in need of help, an image propagated in horror stories that overrode viewers’ critical capacities.

Unlike sex trafficking today, white slavery – the abduction of American or European girls to be sold as sex slaves in foreign markets – was largely a myth. The fear-mongering narrative arose at a time of increased post-industrial migration, in which disparate cultures mingled in urban areas, and nuclear families dissolved as women travelled for work. Social reformers concerned with moral degradation aligned their efforts with abolitionist feminists who believed prostitution to be another instance of male oppression. Moral crusaders invented the persona of the ‘white slave’ – the innocent girl who, through no fault of her own, was coerced into debauchery and bondage.

Sensational reportage generated public support for legislation that regulated migration of women with a specific reference to sexual exploitation. The 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic, signed in Paris by fourteen European countries, was the first international statement against trafficking in persons. It identified the victims as women and girls who are moved by a third person for the sake of ‘immoral ends’ but offered no further definition. The agreement legitimised a government’s mandate to identify traffickers at the border and to interrogate and deport foreign sex workers, although an obligation to punish traffickers was not added for another six years. The United States also passed the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910 (the Mann Act) which criminalised transportation of women and girls across state borders for ‘the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose’.

The gender-specific language and the moral imperatives of those early discussions still dominate the debate today.

Trafficking reappeared as a political concern in the 1980s and 90s – again during a time of increased female labour migration, and in an era marked by fear of HIV being carried across international borders by foreigners, creating an environment of uncertainty and insecurity. The most prominent proponents of anti-trafficking legislation in the United States were the evangelical Right who aligned their moral repugnance of prostitution with the neo-abolitionist feminist Left. And the same qualities that defined the ‘white slave’ were used for the ‘trafficking victim’: moral purity, sexual innocence, victimisation at the hands of a deceitful foreign criminal, helplessness and naivety as a result of poverty, and eventual corruption. While the white slave was an American or European woman sold into foreign markets, today’s trafficking victim is the Eastern European or Asian woman exploited in her own country or trafficked to the West.

The first major contemporary piece of protective legislation was the American Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). It was followed two months later by the UN’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The TVPA is the largest piece of human rights legislation the US has ever passed, and offers the most widely accepted definition of trafficking. The legislation also includes an annual report assessing the efforts of 177 countries to combat human trafficking. Each is ranked as Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3. If a country receives a Tier 3 rating, it means the government has made no effort to curb human trafficking across or within its borders and the US punishes it with sanctions.

The TVPA was signed into law at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, but under George W Bush, the newly established Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was staffed with conservatives who overlooked the broader definition of trafficking to enforce their moral agenda. In 2003, the law was revised to add an ‘anti-prostitution pledge’ that allowed government funding to be withheld from foreign-based NGOs (and, later, US-based organisations as well) that ‘promote, support or advocate for the legalisation or practice of prostitution’. The threat of sanctions and the withdrawal of aid money pressured foreign governments into drafting anti-prostitution policies and laws, without any autonomous evaluation of the consequences of doing so.

In 2008, Cambodia, after being demoted to a Tier 2 standing in the previous year’s report, quickly passed the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. This forbids the sale of sex, the purchase of sex, or providing a room or house for the purposes of transactional sex, but does not actually criminalise sex workers. In practice, however, the law resulted in a sweep of Phnom Penh streets, forcing sex workers and homeless people into inhumane detention centres where they were raped and beaten. Police abuse of independent sex workers continues today but with legal justification.
While white slavery is regarded as a cultural mythology, the sexual exploitation of young women today is real. But the circumscribed discussion of the issue has by no means solved the problem of human trafficking in Cambodia. While underage girls are not found as often in brothels, trafficking is still a threat to young people growing up in poverty, most of whom have no access to NGO support nor enjoy any kind of protection under the law. In fact, one of the most significant human trafficking threats in Cambodia is administered by the government, in the form of recruitment agencies that facilitate labour migration across international borders.

Rathy, the 27-year-old receptionist at my NGO, spends the quiet hours hunched over a paper notebook, teaching himself Korean so that he will be eligible to work overseas in construction, agriculture or a factory. He understands the risks involved, but there are few options in Phnom Penh for a man who grew up in a government-run orphanage centre. Rathy is too old to receive NGO assistance or find a sponsor to help him complete his education, and he lacks the family connections necessary for a well-paying job. Two years working overseas would earn him enough money to start a family and finish his college degree. A Korean-run recruitment agency will organise his visas and work permits, finance his travel expenses and place him with an employer. Once he arrives in Korea, however, neither the Cambodian government nor any NGOs will protect him, and a portion of his salary will be remitted to the agency to pay off his debt. There is no guarantee that his employer will not confiscate his travel documents, thus making him an illegal worker with no rights. Nor will Rathy have any recourse should the agency or his employer withhold his pay.

Some recruitment agencies direct individuals into debt bondage, slavery or abusive/inhumane conditions. Some also hold ‘clients’ in illegal detention, sell women and girls into prostitution or place people in volatile situations as domestic workers. While many agents operate in Cambodia illegally, those recruitment agencies working legally must deliver a $100,000 bond to the government. That means they operate with the assistance of the wealthiest members of society, the same people who set and enforce the laws. When Sub-Decree 190 on ‘The Management of the Sending of Cambodian Workers Abroad through Private Recruitment Agencies’ was redrafted in 2011, it effectively deregulated any standards for protecting migrant workers. Though one vocal human rights NGO in Cambodia issued a damning commentary on the redraft, the international institutions that claim to be mitigating the risk of trafficking have remained silent: the UN is powerless about a country’s domestic policy unless asked to intervene, and American aid institutions have shown no concern for labour trafficking.

SISHA, the anti-trafficking organisation that helped Chan’s nephew, upholds a broad mandate, from assisting young female victims of sexual assault to rescuing elderly disabled men trafficked into begging rings in Thailand. Eric Meldrum, SISHA’s director of operations, recognises the progress that has been made in relation to sex trafficking but bemoans the limited concern that donors and development workers have for those who do not match the popular portrayal of a ‘trafficking victim’.

‘If you’re able-bodied, you’re female, you’re under eighteen and you’ve been a victim of sex trafficking,’ he tells me, ‘then you’ve got no problems in this country finding some services. If you don’t fit that category, you’re struggling. If you’ve got a disability, you’re struggling. If you’re over eighteen, girl or boy, you’re struggling. If you’re a boy, you’re often struggling. If you’re not a victim of sex trafficking but you’re a victim of labour trafficking, you’re struggling. If you’ve been raped, you’re struggling … Girls who have been raped or repeatedly raped are not being serviced because they are not trafficked.’

The wall of Meldrum’s office is covered by two full-sized whiteboards itemising cases: a depressing list of rapes, brokers and instances of labour trafficking. Many of the rapes affect pre-teen girls, while labour trafficking impacts whole families or even a large proportion of a village. He tells me about Dutch donors who expected sixty-four children to be rescued from brothels in six months as a return on their investment – an unrealistic condition, given the current situation in Cambodia. He tells me about aftercare centres in Phnom Penh with empty beds because they only take girls under eighteen who have been trafficked, while other rape victims cannot find shelter. And he tells me about a phone call from the press office of Nicolas Kristof, the two-time Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter.

Kristof’s fame has grown since he and his wife began circulating stories about liberating abused girls and women by buying them from brothels. His most recent exploit was a brothel raid in a remote part of northern Cambodia at the end of 2011. Before coming to the country, Kristof’s office spent an hour on the phone with Meldrum, trying to coordinate an anti-trafficking expedition that the reporter could attend. He needed, they said, a brothel with children.

Meldrum explained that brothels with kids are no longer prevalent in Cambodia, though other forms of trafficking and sexual abuse were.

The press office hung up and went elsewhere.

Meldrum didn’t mind that he couldn’t help Kristof, but he was disappointed that high-profile media stars were perpetuating a false understanding of how trafficking affects Cambodians. Readers applaud the crusading journalist who delivers the story people expect instead of reporting the truth of what happens on the ground and expanding the discussion of what needs to be done. The result is that children stay in traffickers’ safe houses, boys and men remain in bonded labour or return home after experiencing slavery and abuse without support or counselling, and the rural population lives with government-sanctioned recruitment agencies deceiving people into foreign slavery. If Nicolas Kristof is spreading the idea that you can walk into a brothel in Cambodia and get three kids out, then someone who isn’t finding kids in brothels (because they simply aren’t there) will lose the confidence of donors.

The media, the development community and governments must be as concerned with labour exploitation as they are with sex trafficking. We need to protect men as much as women, to provide aftercare and skills training to boys as well as girls. The media needs to broaden its scope to include stories that genuinely inform, not just titillate, and donors need to be exposed to the full spectrum of exploitation and violence that is happening around the world. Most importantly, anti-trafficking NGOs need support in their efforts to provide resources to boys as well as girls, to men and transgendered people as well as women, to victims of labour trafficking as well as sex trafficking.

For victims, or those at risk in places like Cambodia, we must enforce the law against human trafficking as it is written, not as an expression of the moral commitments of certain ideological interest groups.

Isabelle Skaburskis

Isabelle Skaburskis is a freelance writer who recently moved to Melbourne from Cambodia where she worked for many years with anti-trafficking organisations and aftercare centres developing a therapeutic program for human trafficking survivors.

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