Modern day slavery in Southeast Asia: Thailand and Cambodia

massage-parlour-in-thailandMany in Western, developed nations believe that slavery has been long abolished. In reality it is a thriving multi-billion dollar industry — some estimate it is generating $35 billion annually. The UN believes that somewhere between 27 and 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade, amounting to more than the population of Texas. And Southeast Asia is a major hotspot for such activities.

Often human trafficking is associated with women and girls being traded for sex. However, modern day slavery encompasses both genders and can take many forms. The UNODC estimated that 24 per cent of the global slave population in 2009 were male. Slavery can also include indentured servitude, other exploitation in the workforce or even the organ trade. Nevertheless, compared to the other types of forced labour, sexual exploitation comprises 58 per cent of the total. And women make up the majority of those being forced.

According to the Philippine’s justice undersecretary Jose Salazar, recent proliferation of technology has allowed human traffickers to become better organised and more connected. In fact, Salazar asserts that human trafficking has overtaken the illegal arms trade as the second largest criminal industry in the world. And it’s still growing.

Human trafficking is defined by high profits and low risks. There is minimal “capital” investment and a commodity that can be used over and over again. Looking at Southeast Asia, it can be agreed that Thailand and Cambodia are two countries where human trafficking is most rampant.

Representatives from the Children’s Organization of Southeast Asia (COSA) conclude that Thailand is one of the main trafficking hubs in the world. The only close comparison would be India, they said. There are three components to trafficking: source, destination, and transit. Unfortunately Thailand features all three.

Nevertheless, Thailand experiences a relatively stable government. The problem in Thailand is that there is a massive preexisting sex industry. And this industry has gone hand-in-hand with the tourism boom. The epicenter of Thailand’s sex industry is undoubtedly the beach town of Pattaya. After a recent visit, Rachel Neff from NGO Destiny Rescue determined that the city hosts 20,000 brothels. With a population of anywhere between 100,000 to 300,000 — depending on the season — the ratio of brothels to citizens is astounding.

In Pattaya, the sex industry is blatant. According to Ms. Neff, policemen in the city casually sit outside near brothels where traffickers make trades and girls are being forced into sexual acts. In fact, many girls Destiny Rescue saves in Pattaya have reported policemen as the ones who initially brought them to the brothel.

Still government officials in Thailand are willing to work with Destiny Rescue; additionally, they have anti-trafficking measures of their own.  However, because of cities like Pattaya, the sex industry in Thailand is glorified. This reality poses an obstacle in making human trafficking become obsolete.

On the other hand, the sex industry in Cambodia is much more secretive. It is not in-your-face like it is in Thailand, with go-go bars lining the famed streets of Pattaya. In Cambodia it exists inconspicuously in karaoke bars, coffee houses and so forth. Also unlike Thailand, Cambodia faces much more government corruption and overall lack of initiative. Heather Nichols, a representative of Daughters of Cambodia, maintains that Cambodia does not have any tangible anti-trafficking legislation like neighbouring Thailand. Government officials of all ranks are a major part of the problem, said Ms. Nichols.

Notably, in Cambodia the risks are quite low for traffickers. It is easy to pay one’s way out of prosecution. Even if an illegal brothel is raided, it will simply cost a little bit more to move locations and get the working girls back from the police.

A growing trend in Cambodia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, is that girls from the countryside are often led into urban areas under the false assumption of getting a new, better-paying job. Believing to work as a waitress or maid, many girls soon find themselves caught in the sex trade. This trickery also occurs between country borders. Many times girls relocate to a nearby country with the hope of economic advancement. Without proper ID or working papers, girls sometimes find themselves taking under-the-table positions. Low and behold, this new job may in fact be forced prostitution.

Thailand and Cambodia present two very different cases of modern day trafficking. While the future may appear grim, there is hope. Through NGOs like COSA, Destiny Rescue and Daughters of Cambodia, victims are being saved. Awareness is spreading. In the end, prevention and rescue programmes can only reach so many. In the words of Ms. Nichols, human trafficking and the sex trade will remain consistent “as it will require cultural norms to change for the industry to stop thriving.”