Helen Tindall at Alice Springs to Mind has a good post about Cambodian villagers and their fear of human traffickers. She was to take an old man, Joe, crippled by polio, to Handicap International for a new wheelchair. She found Joe distraught beside the road because his daughter hadn’t arrived back from an errand in the market:
She had taken a moto taxi to pick up some water and had not returned. I suggested that maybe she was just shopping at the market but Chom [Helen’s friend and driver] was emphatic that she was probably [kidnapped] because this happens “many many times everyday in Cambodia”. Joe climbed aboard, hoisting his legs in with his arms, and we drove slowly through the town centre looking for her. She was nowhere to be found. The old man was almost crying as we stopped to ask people if they’d seen his daughter anywhere. No one had. So we drove back to Shackville to check if she’d returned. She had not. Joe asked us to please take him home, he didn’t want to be fitted for a wheelchair, he was too distraught to think about it. I quizzed Chom, who was distracted and upset, about why someone would steal a young woman (naive, I know!). “To take them to Thailand, or take them to the chicken farm…”
How bad is sex trafficking in Cambodia? To judge from a quick scan of the Internet, very bad, and also very tied up with trafficking of children. SHE Rescue Home , one of the many foreign and local NGOs actively working in this area, says:
- “In the Mekong sub-region of South-East Asia, approximately 30% of sex workers are between 12-17 years of age.”
- “The age of victims of sexual trafficking [in Cambodia] has reduced since 2008, with the majority of victims in 2010 being between 13-17 years old“
If 30% of sex workers in Cambodia are aged 12-17, that is appalling. But is it true? When I try to track this down, I can’t. The source given by SHE is “World Vision, 2009”. There’s a hyperlink, but when I click on it I get a 404 message – page not found. World Vision has removed it, which is a pity, as the figure is quoted all over the Internet. I went to World Vision’s home page and looked for all reports for 2009. I couldn’t find one with that specific bit of data (30%, Greater Mekong subregion), but I did find this (“Here We Stand: World Vision and Child Rights“, 2009, pages not numbered but page 14 on the pdf counter):
“In Cambodia … one third of an estimated 80,000 commercial sex workers are prostituted children.”
In other words, 30%. So perhaps this is the ultimate source, I can’t tell. Except of course it isn’t the ultimate source, there must be another source behind it, but World Vision doesn’t say what that is and the question can’t be answered.
World Vision says a third of commercial sex workers in Cambodia are children, and SHE says that over half of trafficked sex workers (not the same thing – one can be a sex worker without being trafficked) are children. SHE sources this to “NGOCRC report 2010” – they mean the NGO Joint Statistics Database Report on Sexual Trafficking, Exploitation and Rape in Cambodia, 2010. NGOCRC is a coalition of national and international NGOs involved in child protection, and they’re authoritative – they submit alternative reports on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Cambodia to the United Nations.
From UNIAP 2008 report
Unfortunately, almost the first thing NGOCRC says is that “this report does not attempt to describe the extent of sexual trafficking … in Cambodia” (page 6).
The next thing it says is that “[i]n total 39 victims of sexual trafficking … were reported by participating NGOs in 2010”. (A further 43 suspected victims were identified but didn’t meet the assessment criteria).
If those 39 girls represent 70% of all prostitutes in Cambodia, then there are 55 prostitutes in Cambodia, which is ridiculous. In other words, NGOCRC and World Vision don’t line up. Granted, the NGOs deal only with the children rescued from trafficking, not those left behind, but if there were 24,000 children in Cambodia’s brothels (30% of 80,000) one would expect the number to be higher. The utter confusion over statistics doesn’t mean that SHE should stop what they’re doing to help children, but it would be nice to know. It would be especially nice to know because the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report on Migrant Smuggling in Asia 2015: Current Trends and Related Challenges (released April 2015) notes that Cambodia is already a major source for trafficking in the region, and set to grow with the expansion of the Asian Highway Network and the opening of Asean borders in 2015 (visa-less travel). The Phnom Penh Post says this:
For the most part, illegal Cambodian migrants are male, from poor, rural communities and aged between 17 and 35 years old. They are primarily moving to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam due to their more advanced economies, and are using dangerous routes through tricky terrain under cover of darkness to reach their destinations.
So women and children are in fact the lesser part of the problem, but the point of the UNODC report is that the rapidly developing Southeast Asian highway system and the opening of borders will increase all trafficking, of men especially but also of women and children. Good news: a 2015 study by International Justice Mission finds trafficking of children for sex is on the decline. (The first link is to the IJM study, the second to a report in the Phnom Penh Post). Dramatic decline in fact. An IJM official says child sex trafficking has been “virtually obliterated.” According to the IJM review 2014-2015:
- In the early 2000s children made up 15-30% of prostitutes in brothels;
- by 2012-2013 this had fallen to 8%, and those under 15 to 0.75%;
- and by 2015 these rates had fallen to 2.2% and 0.1%.
But we still have a problem – 30%, 8%, and 0.1% of what? (I suspect that the 30% comes from the same unknown source used by World Vision in 2009). And once again, how did they collect the numbers? The NGOs behind NGOCRC (the people who produced the database report quoted by SHE) are very well aware of the problem. (You can imagine: “Excuse me sir, but we’re doing a survey on pedophiles and I was wondering if you…”) So they asked the United Nations Inter-Agency on Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) to help. The resulting study is called “Measuring the Extent of Sex Trafficking in Cambodia – 2008, or the 2008 UNIAP study for short. Where NGOCRC relied on NGOs reporting cases that had already come to their attention, UNIAP went out into the field (more often the muddy alleys) and made surveys. They covered every province, and they covered not just brothels but all venues where prostitution occurs, from beer gardens to truck stops. The outline of their methods is fascinating in its own right (page 14 onwards). So, what did UNIAP find for prostitution, trafficking, and underage sex-workers in 2008:
- Total number of sex workers in Cambodia: 27,925 (Table 1, p.28)
- Total number of trafficked workers: 433 (Table 2, p.31)
- Total number under 18: 127 (Table 2, product of Vietnamese and Khmer figures)
So how do the various sets of figures and estimates compare?
- World Vision’s estimate of 80,000 sex workers was in a report published in 2009 but didn’t indicate when the figure dated from, who provided it, or how it was arrived at. The UNIAP report says 28,000 (rounded) in 2008, with clear methodology.
- NGOCRC reports 39 victims of sex trafficking; UNIAP’s 127 is far higher.
- UNIAP’s 127 girls under 18 years represents 4.5% of 28,000, and IJM says 2.2% of an unstated total – but UNIAP’s data was gathered in 2008 and IJM’s in 2015.
Given the big effects on percentages by changes in small numbers, and the passage of time, UNIAP and IJM are much in agreement. It looks as if the number of prostitutes in Cambodia, in brothels, massage parlours, restaurants, bars, working the streets on “beats” like Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, is under 30,000 (I’m being generous allowing for under-counting). It also looks as if the number of children involved is less than 200 and falling. And that, really, is what we should expect, given the amount of resources thrown at the problem. So many NGOs, so many international conferences and conventions, so much publicity. Support SHE, support World Vision – it’s working! Oh, yes: Joe’s daughter had missed her ride from the market and was walking home. She was fine.
From UNIAP 2008 report. The caption says that prostitution is morally neutral in Buddhist teaching (more accurately, it’s ignored), but bad if the woman is married (it’s also bad if the man is married, but that’s not reflected in social attitudes).
P.S.: Health and Human Rights Journal reports in June 2015 that anti-trafficking efforts are driving commercial sex out of brothels and into less easily policed venues, with increased risk of violence and spread of HIV and STDs. Yes, prostitution is evil, but heavy-handed approaches lead to even worse outcomes. But that would be a different post.