Human trafficking in Cambodia

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 1.41.58 PMProvincial market: From UNIAP 2008 report

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…”

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 1.59.30 PMFrom UNIAP 2008 report

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 1.58.42 PMFrom UNIAP 2008 report. Shops by day, brothels by night.

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. Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 1.47.31 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 1.59.03 PMFrom UNIAP 2008 report

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?

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 1.43.41 PMFrom UNIAP 2008 report

  • 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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 1.59.59 PMFrom 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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 4.14.32 PMKey findings summary from IJM report, 2015

The Road of Lost Innocence

Somaly MamThe Road of Lost Innocence (link to Amazon here) is “a riveting and beautiful memoir of tragedy and hope,” says the publisher’s blurb. And, of course, a true story.

Except all the evidence suggests it’s not.

“Road” was published as the life-story of Cambodian anti-trafficking campaigner Somaly Mam. Kirkus Review gives this summary:

“Born in 1970 or 1971 and torn from her ethnic Phnong family during Cambodia’s genocidal civil war, Mam suffered as a child in a Khmer village whose people saw her as “fatherless, black, and ugly,” possibly even a cannibal. Her pederast grandfather sold her virginity to a Chinese merchant to whom he owed money, a prize in a culture where raping a virgin was believed to cure AIDS. He then sold her to a soldier who “beat me often, sometimes with the butt of his rifle on my back and sometimes with his hands.” From there it was a short path to what Mam calls “ordinary prostitution,” working for a madam who was quick to hit and slow to feed. In time, after a series of indignities that she recounts in painful detail, Mam extricated herself to live with a French humanitarian-aid worker.”

So there you have it: oppressed minority, pederast grandfather, sold for her virginity, physically and sexually abused, underage prostitute.

The book goes on to tell how she overcame this horrific history to become a leading fighter in the anti-child sex trafficking fight, first in her native Cambodia, and later, following a documentary aired on French television, the world.

And little if any of it is true.

somaly_mamThe real story begins with that 1998 French documentary. Prior to that,  Somaly was just the head of one of many tiny anti-trafficking organisations in Cambodia. The documentary featured a dramatic interview with a 14 year old called Ratha, rescued from a brothel by Somaly’s NGO, AFESIP. Six months later Somaly was on stage at Spain’s Campoamor Theater alongside Emma Bonino, a former European Commissioner for humanitarian aid, and Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a Nigerian-born doctor who had campaigned for decades against the circumcision of women, receiving the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. Somaly was telegenic, she spoke French, and she had a host of harrowing tales.

By 2008, the date this book was published, Somaly Mam was a jet-setting ambassador for the global campaign against the trafficking of children and women, president of her own Somaly Mam Foundation which raises millions each year, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. In 2009, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

Then around 2012 the Cambodia Daily started doing some investigative reporting, and the wheels started to fall off for Somaly Mam. They fell slowly, but they fell surely. That heart-wrenching interview on French television with Ratha? “The video that you see, everything that I put in is not my story,” Ratha told the Daily. Mam’s NGO, she said, had provided an education for her, and she was grateful, but that she could no longer continue a lie that had followed her for half her life. “Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well.” In other words, the interview was faked by Somaly.

somaly+mamThe Cambodia Daily also discovered that one of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s most highly-publicized sex trafficking victims had fabricated her harrowing story of gruesome mutilation at the hands of a brothel owner. In numerous interviews and in a prime-time television documentary, Long Pros said that as a young girl she was held as a sex slave at a brothel in Phnom Penh where she had her eye gouged out with a knife for refusing to have sex with customers. However, medical records and interviews with Ms. Pros’ parents and her eye surgeon showed she had her eye removed in a hospital because of a tumor that developed in her childhood. Ms. Pros’ parents said she was sent directly from their home to Ms. Mam’s organization in Phnom Penh simply to get an education and she had never spent any time in a brothel.

In 2013 Somaly Mam finally admitted that claims she had made in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in which she said that eight girls she rescued from the sex industry had been killed by the Cambodian army after they raided her organization’s shelter, were false, as were long-standing and highly publicized claims that her 14 years old daughter was kidnapped by human traffickers in 2006. (Somaly had claimed that the traffickers had videotaped her daughter being gang-raped in retaliation for her work with victims of the sex trade; police said they were baffled by the claims, while Ms. Mam’s former partner said the story was a publicity stunt to raise funds for her organization).

All of this related to stories told by Somaly Mam in relation to her work post-1998; now it seems that the entire story of her life before then, the story which begins Road of Lost Innocence, is equally unreliable. ( Newsweek, 21 May, 2014, “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint And Sinner Of Sex Trafficking,” Simon Marks).

Buy a $25 Empowerment necklace...

Buy a $25 Empowerment necklace…

Newsweek’s interviews with Somaly’s childhood acquaintances, former teachers, and local officials in Thloc Chhroy, the village where she grew up, contradict important, lurid details in the autobiography. Many of the villagers report they never met or even saw Mam’s cruel “pederastic grandfather,” nor the rich Chinese merchant who allegedly raped her, nor the violent soldier she says she was forced to marry.

Orn Hok, a former commune (village district) chief, remembers the day she arrived in the village, noting, “Somaly came here with her parents. She is a daughter of Mam Khon and Pen Navy.”

Pen Chhun Heng, now in her 70s, says she is a cousin of Mam’s mother and rejects the notion that Mam was adopted or that she was raised (or kept) by “Grandfather.”

Sam Nareth, a childhood friend of Mam’s, says Mam first attended school in the village in 1981 and remained there until she got her high school diploma. “She finished secondary school in 1987, and Somaly and I went to sit the teachers exam in Kompong Cham together.”

Thou Soy, director of Khchao High School in Thloc Chhroy, distinctly remembers Mam attending classes between 1981 and 1987, as does the current commune chief, Thorng Ruon, and his two predecessors. Mam was well-known and popular in their small village, “a happy, pretty girl with pigtails.”

"Many of these children are sold into sexual slavery..." True or false?

“Many of these children are sold into sexual slavery…” True or false?

What led Somaly Mam to create such a complicated web of falsehoods? (As Marks points out, the stories have become so complicated that she has trouble keeping the details straight). Possibly she’s what the French call a fabuliste, a compulsive maker-up of alternative realities. This is not the same thing as a deliberate liar or confidence trickster – the fabuliste has no more control over the stories than a kleptomaniac has over shoplifting. When the she was so abruptly rocketed into the international jet-set, it must have seemed that the unreal was real after all.

There also seems to be an element of something darker in her makeup, though equally pathological. On the international stage Somaly is charming, but in private, according to Marks’ investigations, she’s tyrannical and self-centred, and AFESIP operates in an atmosphere not of dedication but of fear. “She used to talk to me (reports an ex-employee) about wanting to put things in people’s food and how easy it would be to poison someone.”

Let’s return to the question Marks raises: even if Somaly Mam lies about practically everything, does it matter? After all, the sex industry is evil, sex trafficking (especially of children) is especially evil, and if Mam raises consciousness and money in the West, is this an adequate excuse?

The core problem is that Somaly Mam is a public figure, the public face of the anti-trafficking campaign in Cambodia. And she’s poisoning the well. In her highly emotional speeches and presentations she claims there “at least” 40,000 trafficked women in Cambodia, many of them under-age. This seems highly unlikely. A well-conducted 2008 study by a professor of statistics from the University of Miami found there were barely a thousand trafficked women, and only 127 children (defined as aged under age 18); only eleven of these were aged 15 or less. In short, Somaly Mam has created a grave misapprehension in the West over trafficking in Cambodia.

Somaly Mam at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, CA.

Somaly Mam at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, CA.

Which brings us to the question of cash. If the anti-trafficking organisations are spending millions on the cause, yet there are still 40,000-plus trafficked women and children in the brothels of Cambodia, then the money hasn’t been very well spent. If, on the other hand, there are only a thousand trafficked women and just over a hundred children, what’s being done with the money? (Just one million dollars, divided equally between a thousand women and children, would give each of them a thousand dollars, which is a small fortune in Cambodia). Where has the money gone?

Marks spent two years investigating this story, and for most of that time, Somaly, AFESIP and the foundation stonewalled. In April, after repeated requests from Newsweek for an interview with Somaly Mam, Gina Reiss-Wilchins, the foundation’s executive director, said in a statement on the foundation’s website: “Following an internal review, the Foundation has recently launched an independent, third-party investigation to further examine these claims. Somaly Mam is in full support of this review. We can only hope that this does not deter other survivors from sharing their experiences, because it is their courageous voices that bring promise of a world free from trafficking.” The foundation has retained the law firm Goodwin Procter, (which also declined to speak to Newsweek), to carry out the investigation. A further and much briefer statement was issued in May following the appearance of the Newsweek article.

Jonathan Van Smit

Yama-3-660x439Jonathan Van Smit is a Hong Kong-based street photographer. He’s done (or is doing) a project in Phnom Penh, called Heart of Darkness. It’s about the people of the slums behind street 51, around the Golden Sorya Mall area.

glue-sniffing-kid-Street-51-slums-660x440He talks a little about the project in this interview – the thing that interests me most is his questioning of the project’s justification – these are hard-hitting images, difficult to look at, (very noir), but how can they be justified? There’s no easy answer to that I guess, but for me, they’re an education about an aspect of Phnom Penh life that’s normally closed off.

Phouk-Navy-660x439More about Jonathan and his photography here. “Basically I just walk around for hours, sometimes all day, taking photos of anything that looks interesting to me or fits into one of my themes. I’m particularly interested in cities, how they change, the lives of people who have become marginalized by economic change, and in how they deal with adversity.”