The Cambodia Daily , WEEKEND Saturday, December 13-14, 2003

 

Trafficking’s Lasting Limbo

Former Sex Workers Face Slow Repatriation, Recovery

By Christopher St John
The Cambodia Daily

Huyen Trang is reluctant to describe the four months she spent at a brothel in the Svay Pak red-light district. The 14-year-old would much rather discuss when she will return to Vietnam.

“I miss home very much. I want to go home this week,” she said.

Huyen Trang, whose family name has been omitted for her safety, has been living in a residential center of the NGO Afesip for more than seven months.

Afesip has been trying to repatriate Huyen Trang to Vietnam through the appropriate legal channels, a lengthy process that involves interviews with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the Vietnamese Embassy, said Phy Sophon, head of Afesip’s residential center.

Huyen Trang has already been separated from her family for nearly a year. But in her interview with the Vietnamese Embassy she provided a home address that was incorrect. The embassy refused to consider her for repatriation. Soon after, Huyen Trang’s parents, who had heard of her whereabouts from other women who had passed through Afesip, traveled to Phnom Penh and provided the correct address. The process was started anew.

Phy Sophon said the repatriation process takes about six months, time that often demoralizes trafficking victims caught in limbo between their rescue and their return to daily life. “No one wants to wait that long. They want to escape from the center.”

And many women do “escape,” said Pierre Legros, Afesip’s director. The organization does not have the legal right or manpower to detain the trafficking victims who pass through the center, he explained. Nonetheless, they are encouraged to stay until an appropriate and safe alternative has been found. Many are not willing to wait.

Huyen Trang was one of 27 women brought to Afesip in March, the result of a joint investigation and raid on Svay Pak conducted by Cambodian police and the faith-based NGO International Justice Mission. Within two weeks, six of those women had climbed the compound’s wall and disappeared. Legros said it is likely they returned to the brothels from which they were rescued.

The Cambodian government receives technical and financial support from the International Organization for Migration for the repatriation of Vietnamese trafficking victims, said Sary Mony, return and reintegration project manager for IOM. He listed several obstacles that slow repatriation, including strict Vietnamese immigration laws, the delayed processing of documents and corruption.
But Sary Mony was still enthusiastic that the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia were working on the issue at all.

“Of course, corruption’s in place. Of course, there’s slowness, lack of motivation. But it could be an individual’s problem, not a general one. I see potential,” he said. However, he added, “The whole process is really sensitive, and it would not happen without a third party working with the two governments.”

Another Afesip resident, Phuong, is acutely aware of the months separating her from legal repatriation. Phuong is 32 years old and has two young children at home in Vietnam. She was trafficked into sex slavery about three months ago, after accepting an offer to work as a cook in Cambodia.

She is eager to return to Vietnam. “When will I be able to go back home?” she asked. “I miss my two children very much.”

Detained in a Phnom Penh brothel, Phuong said she was beaten and was expected to service at least 10 customers every day. “If I only slept with nine a day, they didn’t pay me,” she said.

Because Phuong has children in Vietnam, the wait for repatriation may be too long, Phy Sophon said. “Because she is older, we considered another way. We will just bring her to the border and let her make her own way home,” he explained.

The lengthy repatriation process is not the only obstacle facing rescued victims and care-giving organizations.

A recent study sponsored by the US Agency for International Development concluded that a significant number of trafficked women and children are serving under a debt contract between the victim’s family and the trafficker or brothel owner. These contracts, according to the study, are viewed as matters of great seriousness by both parties.

“Attempts to control trafficking through rescue attempts will fail to the extent that the impact of a debt contract on the trafficked person’s motivation and behavior are not taken into account,” the study said, adding that many women under such contracts will rush back to the brothel at the first opportunity.

Even for those trafficking victims who acquiesce to their rescue and subsequent waiting period, there is still a matter of funding.

Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua decried the lack of funds allotted to the post-rescue care of trafficking victims. “The government doesn’t have a budget to provide social services, and social services and legal services should be part of the whole rescue,” she said.

The cost of caring for trafficking victims, including therapy, food, clothing, security and training is extremely high, Legros said. Afesip shelters around 140 women at any given time, and some will use the center’s resources for more than a year.

Police brought Rotha, 24, to Afesip about a month ago. Like many of the center’s residents, Rotha does not have a home to which she can return.

“My mother told me she was going to get me a job as a garment factory worker, but she sold me instead,” she said.

After her rescue from a Svay Pak brothel, Rotha had nearly no memory of what had happened to her. A letter she had written while at the brothel helped shed light on her memory loss, Phy Sophon explained. Rotha was badly beaten because she refused to sleep with customers in Svay Pak. Phy Sophon added that she was shocked with bare wires and heavily drugged to make her submissive.
There are still gaps, but Rotha’s memory has begun to return. “They beat and harassed me every day.... I’m very scared now when I begin to remember some things,” she said.

With some encouragement, Rotha has decided she will stay at Afesip to study and to learn to cook. In all likelihood, Phy Sophon said, she will be at the center for more than a year.

Legros pointed out the lack of assistance offered for the care and training of women like Rotha.
“I feel I have to be the mother, lawyer, church and the police,” he said

Chanthol Oung, director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, said her organization shelters about 150 women and children at a time. Although CWCC and Afesip receive private funding there is little to no financial support from the Cambodian government.

“The government is helpful, but not at the level they need to be,” Chanthol Oung said.
Mu Sochua suggested that rather than pouring resources solely into the investigation and rescue of trafficking victims, governmental and non-governmental organizations need to have a well-rounded approach.

“You cannot just walk out and say that now the girls have been rescued it is over,” she said.

Thun Saray, director of the human rights NGO Adhoc, agreed: “Apart from the punishment of the traffickers we need to provide assistance to the victims, train them in vocational skills and most importantly reintegrate them into society. That is a very important aspect.”

A consultant for the Ministry of Interior’s anti-trafficking unit, Christian Guth, said the unit’s cooperation with organizations like Afesip and the CWCC is very important, but the unit itself is not involved in post-rescue care of victims.

According to a recent study published by the IOM that examined the return and reintegration of Vietnamese women from Cambodia’s sex trade, a common concern among those involved in the care of trafficking victims is the uncoordinated, shortsighted investigation and rescue.

“The argument being that if the humanitarian act of rescue cannot be supported by infrastructure necessary for the long-term reintegration of the victim, rescue by itself may be counterproductive to its aims,” the report said.

Legros expressed a similar concern, noting that human trafficking is an increasingly high-profile activity. The benefit of this publicity is increased anti-trafficking efforts, Legros said. The downside, he added, is that “There is really no clear view of the people...and there is no coordination at all.”
Many rescues are designed to grab international headlines and funding, without truly considering the well-being of the victims, Legros said.

“Let’s say it’s pure politics. Stop.”

After her rescue from a Svay Pak brothel, Rotha had nearly no memory of what had happened to her. A letter she had written while at the brothel helped shed light on her memory loss, Phy Sophon explained.

Rotha had refused to sleep with customers in Svay Pak and was badly beaten for it. Phy Sophon added that she was shocked with bare wires and heavily drugged to make her submissive.
There are still gaps, but Rotha’s memory has begun to return.

“They beat and harassed me everyday.... I’m very scared now when I begin to remember some things,” she said.

With some encouragement, Rotha has decided she will stay at Afesip to study and to learn to cook. In all likelihood, Phy Sophon said, she will be at the center for more than a year.

Legros pointed out the lack of assistance offered for the care and training of women like Rotha.
“I feel I have to be the mother, lawyer, church and the police,” he said

Chanthol Oung, director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, said her organization shelters about 150 women and children at a time. Although CWCC and Afesip receive private funding there is little to no financial support from the Cambodian government.

“The government is helpful, but not at the level they need to be,” Chanthol Oung said.

Mu Sochua suggested that rather than pouring resources solely into the investigation and rescue of trafficking victims, governmental and non-governmental organizations need to have a well-rounded approach.

“You cannot just walk out and say that now the girls have been rescued it is over,” she said.

Thun Saray, director of the human rights NGO Adhoc, agreed: “Apart from the punishment of the traffickers we need to provide assistance to the victims, train them in vocational skills and most importantly reintegrate them into society. That is a very important aspect.”

A consultant for the Ministry of Interior’s anti-trafficking unit, Christian Guth, said the unit’s cooperation with organizations like Afesip and the CWCC is very important, but the unit itself is not involved in post-rescue care of victims.

According to a recent study published by the IOM that examined the return and reintegration of Vietnamese women from Cambodia’s sex trade, a common concern among those involved in the care of trafficking victims is the uncoordinated, shortsighted investigation and rescue.

“The argument being that if the humanitarian act of rescue cannot be supported by infrastructure necessary for the long-term reintegration of the victim, rescue by itself may be counterproductive to its aims,” the report said.

Legros expressed a similar concern, noting that human trafficking is an increasingly high-profile activity. The benefit of this publicity is increased anti-trafficking efforts, Legros said. The downside, he added, is that “There is really no clear view of the people...and there is no coordination at all.”

Many rescues are designed to grab international headlines and funding, without truly considering the well-being of the victims, Legros said.

“Let’s say it’s pure politics. Stop.”