Sex Trafficking: An Inside View

Dark alley in Cambodia

Dark alley in Cambodia

Sex Trafficking: An Inside View - Part I

An Unspoken Voices Exclusive

For the next four weeks of Sex Trafficking Awareness Month,  Unspoken Voices will be sharing stories from one of our own volunteers who chose to fight against trafficking and tyranny in an incredible way. He traveled to some of the biggest hot-spots for trafficking—from places like Hong Kong to Cambodia.

The stories can be heartbreaking but they are realistic. There is humor and grace, fear and pain.

I invite you along on this journey of extraction into the tragic & dark world of trafficking.

Part I: The Reality of Trafficking in Cambodia

by Jay Morse

Yes, drivers ignore solid yellow lines and routinely turn hard left into the "bike lane" before swerving into oncoming traffic. There is no "suicide lane" because any lane can easily serve in that function. Either side of a divided road is acceptable here for two way traffic. Drivers are oblivious to "do not enter" signs. The way they ignore STOP signs puts California drivers to shame. Drivers ignore pedestrians so pedestrians ignore drivers.  In other words, people here seem to hold the law with a healthy dose of contempt. No wonder. Traffic cops don't even write tickets; they solicit "fines" directly. So much more efficient . . .

Needless to say, I passed on renting a bicycle.

But this write-up is not about that kind of traffic. I came here, in part, to help with anti-human-trafficking efforts, or to at least get up to date on what's going on.

Here's what I discovered from several sources such as from fellow volunteers, from an NGO (the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights), from online videos, and from simply keeping my eyes open while I visited.

1) Repeated crackdowns on "out-in-the-open rape slavery" have had an effect. Open door brothels, once said to be ubiquitous, are now gone. The most well-known brothel streets in neighborhoods of Phnom Penh such as Tuol Kork have been cleaned up and redeveloped. The pedophile playground of Svay Pak has reportedly been shut down for good. Brothels holding bonded and trafficked women and children are said to still exist, but are unmarked, invisible to foreigners and difficult for Cambodians to spot even at night.

2) Economic development since I briefly visited Phnom Penh in 2004 is downright stupefying. I don't recognize the city I had visited twelve years' prior at all. A discernible middle class is rising and poverty is way down. Stylishly dressed young women on fancy motorbikes swarm in the hustling, chaotic commuting traffic. Economic opportunity for women seems to have reduced the economic "push" into the meanest forms of prostitution in the capital city. 


Drawings from Cambodian Sex Trafficking Survivors SELECT TO EXPAND

3) There has also been a bewildering explosion of tourist-oriented bars and domestic karaoke joints, with hostesses. All of it legal. From what little I saw, none of that was here thirteen years ago. There were also restaurants with hostesses outside of the big cities. Signs in both English and Khmer mark massage establishments, even in small towns. An NGO (non-governmental agency) friend told me there is no way to tell from the outside whether a legal business is also a front for "monkey business." Part of the shift to legal business fronts may be due to crackdowns noted above and part due to nascent prosperity. Part is also no doubt intended to draw male tourists.

4) There is much less for NGOs to do in R&R (recon and rescue) of children and women trapped in brothels because there are far fewer readily visible than there used to be. It was not possible for me to volunteer for such work. One would-be volunteer told me by email that the NGOs he contacted in Cambodia now are only interested in money. The notoriety of trafficking brought in contributions that—along with a lack of accountability—allegedly made good business for NGOs, many of them less than scrupulous. Some NGOs, he states, even aggravate the problem to keep the money rolling in. An attorney in Cambodia told me that some of the flashiest cars in Phnom Penh are driven by corrupt NGO executives.

5) R&R work can be risky, particularly where police have been bought off or intimidated. Training, experience, and common sense are vital. (One NGO emailed me that I would be a good candidate for their training. Too bad they're in Colorado.) A Cambodian NGO staffer who directed R&R efforts recounted one case where he helped parents track down their daughter. Police would not help because the parents could not afford the required "fees." He found the daughter by posing as a customer but ran into suspicion and fear (that he might be a cop?), because he only wanted to ask her questions. Then he gritted his teeth and hoped she would not disappear before a court order could be obtained and a rescue mission organized.  There was also a continual fear that compromised cops might blow the whole operation.  However, they finally rescued her—the mission was a success.  He said it was extremely gratifying when the wide-eyed girl said, "Now I realize why you only wanted to ask questions."

Another drawing from a survivor. SELECT TO EXPAND

She was doubly lucky. She had parents who cared. But that was the last rescue his NGO did. The NGO's executive director told him that a couple of gangsters had "made" him and tracked him back to the NGO's HQ, which was also a shelter for survivors. Then that was it—the game was up.

The executive director halted R&R work. Presumably, he also started looking for new digs. I was astonished to visit their current headquarters and find that the shelter and offices were still  housed together. I'd thought it was basic OPSEC (operational security) to keep shelters in a separate, secret location. Evidently not.