What is sex trafficking?
Each year, thousands of people are exploited in the commercial sex trade, coerced into sham marriages abroad, or forced to perform sex acts online (cybersex)s. These are the different faces of sex trafficking. Through threats, fraud, or force, perpetrators prey on vulnerable individuals and sexually exploit them for pleasure or financial gain.
Victims endure violence, debt bondage, and other abuses once they are baited and enslaved by their traffickers. While trafficking typically connotes some form of movement, a victim does not need to be transported for it to count as sex trafficking—although an element of force is usually part of the deal.
How big is sex trafficking in Asia?
An estimated 4.5 million people are victims of sex trafficking worldwide, and many more lie at risk of it—not least in Asia. Across the region, people are trapped in harrowing conditions of modern slavery.
The illicit sex trade in the Philippines has as many as 100,000 minors working in bars, brothels, and online chatrooms that facilitate the buying and selling of sexual services. Some, sold by their families or lured by job opportunities in Manila, the country’s capital, are as young as 13 years old.
A few hundred miles away in the Mekong region, young women from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar suffer a similar fate. Duped by false promises of a better life in China, they are flown out and sold as wives to Chinese men—an overwhelming number of whom are single due to the serious gender imbalance caused by the country’s one-child policy. In some cases, these women are forced to produce children, whereas others are kept in sexual slavery and mistreated by their new families.
Even Singapore, with its squeaky clean image, harbors trafficking victims from poorer parts of Asia. Perpetrators there reportedly find ways to evade the authorities by pimping foreign women in “pop-up” brothels that run out of short-term flats. No one living in these ordinary neighbourhoods would have guessed that sex traffickers were working in their midst.
A crisis is also brewing in neighbouring Malaysia, where dozens of Rohingya refugee women are kidnapped and trafficked from Bangladesh to work as prostitutes in Kuala Lumpur. Many of these women are suffering or fleeing from difficult circumstances back home, mired in poverty and conflict.
Media coverage over the past decade has documented the changing nature of sex trafficking. The rise of digital technology and social media has made online sexual abuse and exploitation, especially of young girls, more common.
In the Philippines, more and more children are being forced to perform sex acts on live webcams for paedophiles, who pay to watch them from distant countries. Meanwhile in Indonesia, pimps and recruiters increasingly use Facebook and other social media channels to deceive and exploit girls for the purpose of sex trafficking.
ECPAT International, a global network of child rights organisations, estimates that a staggering 40,000 to 70,000 children are involved in trafficking, pornography, or prostitution in Indonesia alone. Human trafficking and child pornography are highly profitable forms of organised crime, generating $150.3 billion and $8 billion in annual profits, respectively.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the largely underground enterprise of human trafficking is especially big business in Asia Pacific, where an estimated 400 million people live in extreme poverty.
A victim’s journey
When it comes to sex trafficking, images of locked up girls, vice gangs, and a shady, violent world of deception come to mind. But what does this dark web look like on the ground?
A sex trafficking syndicate usually involves multiple players and conspirators, who together make up the string of people interacting with victims from their places of origin to their destinations. Many runners carry out the work on the ground. Some do not even meet the victim at all—but often, the dangers of sex trafficking lie close to home.
Home is not a safe place for everyone
Global data from the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC) reveals that close to half of child trafficking cases begin with a family member.
In the Philippines, for example, sexual abusers primarily recruit children through their parents, relatives, and neighbours. The United States–based global nonprofit organisation International Justice Mission found that 70 percent of perpetrators are related to or live near their victims.
Often, the people involved in sex trafficking aren’t even aware of their role in a victim’s exploitation. Relatives and friends might unknowingly introduce the victim to a recruiter, broker, or pimp. Parents matchmaking their daughters may never guess that their girls would end up abused or exploited.
But tragically, more often than not, the people who make up the victim’s inner circle actively participate in the trafficking network. Desperate mothers sell their daughters off to roving recruiters, even as neighbours trick girls into accepting fraudulent job offers abroad.
For 30-year-old Pyone, a neighbour promised that she could get a good salary from working at a shop on the China–Myanmar border. The pressure of supporting her child and elderly parents drove her to seek out the offer, but when she arrived at the store, she was picked up on a motorbike and transported across the border to China, where she was sold to marry a Chinese man. Her husband’s relatives beat her when she tried to escape.
Boyfriends, whether recruiters or not, fake romantic relationships with the intention of trafficking girls. Studies in Vietnam have found that trafficked women are often thrust into the network by their lovers. Intimate partners play a strong role in trafficking for sexual exploitation: according to the CTDC, 98 percent of children recruited into trafficking by their lovers end up being sexually exploited. Almost all of them are female.
How can parents knowingly put their daughters in such danger?
While the desire for financial stability might compel parents from struggling families to offer their children to traffickers, this alone does not explain why children are trafficked.
Research has found that trafficked children typically come from families from lower social-economic classes or have family members who engage in drug abuse or illegal activity. These children are more likely to be abused or neglected at home, or pressurised to earn money for their families.
This is particularly true for daughters in more traditional communities, who are expected to support their families from a young age. In Thailand, for example, some parents encourage their daughters to enter prostitution to pay back “breast milk money.”
Children from broken or dysfunctional families are easy targets for traffickers, who befriend runaway or homeless children and influence them to work in the sex trade. Those who suffer sexual abuse at the hands of family members are also more likely to be sexually exploited by traffickers later.
In a bid to target children and their families in counter-trafficking efforts, countries in Asia have introduced community-level programmes that spread awareness on sex trafficking. These include videos and radio shows in local languages that remote tribes can better access, as well as outreach programmes by former sex workers. Nonprofit organisations have also introduced alternative income-generating and educational opportunities to prevent girls from getting lured by traffickers.
Hope and danger in the big city
Material pressures, too, can make the city a dangerous place for sex trafficking. Driven by a lack of educational and employment opportunities, women from remote and poverty-stricken areas migrate to nearby or distant cities in hopes of earning a living.
The most common trajectory for trafficked Asian women involves promises of legal work in another city or country. These employment opportunities often turn out to be scams—a waitressing job can be a cover for sex work in shady bars. Those who migrate on their own accord might also have trouble finding jobs when they get there, and turn to the sex trade as a last resort.
Part of the difficulty of sex trafficking, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), is that trafficking women and girls across national borders within Southeast Asia does not take much organisational sophistication. In fact, most women start out on the journey themselves.
Those trafficked abroad are usually transported by professional procurers, who share the same nationalities as the victims but have lived in the destination country for long. UNODC describes such networks as independent and small in scale, as they rely on community linkages to lure their victims.
Once they arrive at their destination, most of these women are subsequently exploited in dodgy brothels, whose owners are themselves the traffickers.
Migrants who end up in the sex industry are controlled by their traffickers or pimps through violent abuse and debt bondage—the sum of costs paid to smuggle the women abroad. Most migrant sex workers work in harsh, gruesome conditions to pay off what they owe the pimp in food, housing, and maintenance.
Who else is involved in sex trafficking?
The main problem with human trafficking in general is that most traffickers act with impunity. Border guards, police officers, and other government officials either collude with criminal networks to move victims across borders or turn a blind eye to the unlawful acts happening under their watch.
Hotels, bars, and other entertainment spots—which form the bulk of the tourism industry across Asia—are also intricately woven into sex trafficking network. In the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand, owners of popular beer gardens, massage parlours, and karaoke bars charge extra fees if customers want to take sex workers “off-site” to spend a night or more with them.
Traffickers also often rely on banks to conduct their operations. Carrying physical cash could arouse suspicion or attack from other criminals, and traffickers typically transfer large amounts of money into their bank accounts, depositing and withdrawing cash from multiple locations. Following this money trail often exposes the links in a sex trafficking ring, and law enforcement officers work with financial institutions to spot suspicious activity, helping them identify and prosecute traffickers.
Where are Asia’s missing women?
Reliable and accurate data on sex trafficking is elusive, but broader research on human trafficking has found that sexual exploitation and forced labour are the most prominent forms of trafficking.
In Southeast Asia, trafficking for forced and sham marriages within the Mekong region and to wealthier countries is prevalent. Those who are trafficked from Asia have also been found or repatriated from more than 60 countries from all regions of the world, although the UNODC notes a large number of flows from Asia to Europe, North America, and the Middle East.
Indonesia has one of the highest recorded cases of human trafficking worldwide, as women and girls are trafficked for purposes of domestic servitude, forced labour, and sexual exploitation in higher income countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and the Gulf states.
Brides for sale on the Belt and Road
Along the growing routes that connect Asia to the rest of the world, women are being trafficked to marry Chinese men. Many are from ethnic or religious minorities, or impoverished communities living in remote areas, where a lack of educational and employment opportunities leaves them with little choice when the marriage brokers come knocking.
A network of illegal brokers and marriage agencies has cropped up across the region, as China-backed development expands and other Asian countries build stronger ties with the superpower.
Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, and North Korea have become source countries for the trafficking of young brides for sale in China. In 2019, investigators released a list of more than 600 Pakistani girls who were sold to Chinese men through trafficking schemes. Some say the Pakistani government wants to keep these schemes hush-hush in order to protect its blossoming relationship with China.
Traffickers have indeed tapped into increased regional connectivity, brought about by the Belt and Road Initiative, to lure and exploit their victims. Many women and girls have reportedly been forced into prostitution and fertility treatments, enduring physical and sexual abuse once they become caught up in these transnational trafficking rackets. Brokers can make up to $65, 000 from one cross-border marriage, while the bride’s family receives as little as $1,500.
Trafficking women within borders
Much trafficking occurs domestically in countries such as the Philippines, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Most trafficking from Cambodia occurs within its borders, with women and girls trafficked from rural areas to the urban hub of Phnom Penh. Around half of the clients in the Cambodian sex industry are local men, while the rest are primarily male tourists from other parts of Asia.
According to a study by the United Nations Development Programme, three out of four survivors of sex trafficking had been trafficked internally within Cambodia.
Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines are notorious for being home to seedy hubs that thrive on sex tourism. In notorious cities such as Pattaya (Thailand) and Angeles City (Philippines), the influx of Western male tourists all year round keeps the wheels of the local sex trade turning.
Investigative reports have found that in the slums of Angeles City, generations of children born through sex tourists from all over the world have been left behind by foreign fathers. Most tourists who prey on young girls in these cities are known to be from wealthier countries such as the United States, Australia, Europe, and others in East Asia.
Why are women and girls in Asia so vulnerable to being trafficked?
According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index—which measures the vulnerability of each region to modern slavery—Asia Pacific ranks third highest after Africa and the Arab states. The region also accounts for 73 percent of forced sexual exploitation victims worldwide.
Almost all victims who are trafficked for sexual exploitation, cybersex, or marriage are female.
What puts women and girls in Asia especially at risk of being trafficked in Asia? Poverty, poor governance, the lack of education, and unmet basic needs create poor socioeconomic conditions at home—often exacerbated by conflict and corruption—which often lead to victims falling into traffickers’ hands. For women, legal discrimination and lower levels of education make things even worse.
Here’s how Asia fares on these factors across six other major world regions:
Without access to education, greater employment opportunities, and financial resources, women are poised to become victims of modern slavery. Women are more likely than men to live in extreme poverty and suffer from food insecurity—circumstances which put them at higher risk of being exploited, as they strive towards a better life for themselves and their families.
Cultural practices and social norms that disproportionately impact girls can also put her on the path to being trafficked in the long run. When a girl is not allowed to go to school, for example, selling her off in an illegal marriage becomes an option for families struggling to get by.
The converse is also true. A girl is sent to the city or abroad in a genuine attempt to give her better educational or work opportunities. In countries where women experience low physical security, she has no legal protection from ills such as domestic violence and sexual harassment, putting her more at risk of falling into the hands of traffickers.
Corruption is deeply entwined with trafficking
Asia ranks pretty low when it comes to governance issues, which includes factors such as political rights, political instability, women’s security, and governments’ responses to modern slavery.
According to UNODC, corruption and lack of accountability are two of the major factors fostering human trafficking in Asia. The complicity of officials, criminal justice actors, and law enforcement in sex trafficking networks carries on with little consequence in many countries.
Benjamin Smith, UNODC regional coordinator on trafficking in persons and the smuggling of migrants, said in 2018 that “tackling corruption is the next big frontier” in the fight against human trafficking in Southeast Asia. Without the collusion of corrupt officials, he stated, trafficking would not exist to the extent it currently does.
How does Asia fare in the anti-trafficking fight?
Although strong national anti-trafficking laws have been enacted over the past few years in accordance with international standards and protocols, significant gaps remain in enforcing the law and protecting victims in Asia.
According to the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, many Southeast Asian states do not meet the standards outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), although most are making significant efforts to do so. The TVPA recognises sustained steps to limit the demand for commercial sex and sex tourism and to vigorously prosecute and sentence public officials who collude with criminal networks.
While governments might have the political will to abolish trafficking, law enforcement agencies often lack the skills, knowledge, and resources to effectively deal with the problem. Many lack the capacity to conduct intelligence-driven investigations in isolated areas, where the trafficking of women and girls is rampant, while the proliferation of online sexual exploitation poses a challenge to traditional anti-trafficking efforts.
The Philippines, which has steadily met the minimum standards of the TVPA, stands out for having one of the most rigorous anti-trafficking regimes in Asia. With 24 task forces trained to handle national and regional cases of trafficking, the country also opened the Philippine Internet Crimes against Children Center in 2019 to more effectively deal with growing child exploitation in the country.
Across ASEAN, however, more can be done to protect and provide specialised assistance to victims of sex trafficking. Many victims are still detained or arrested for their involvement, and most cannot access help to deal with their trauma. Recommendations listed in the TVPA report include hiring more female law enforcers in anti-trafficking units and improving access to psychological health services for victims of sex trafficking.
Can Asia save its next generation from sex trafficking?
Porous borders, unchecked corruption and the clandestine, evolving nature of trafficking make the elimination of sex trafficking an uphill battle in Asia.
The current COVID-19 pandemic is making the situation worse, given the increased financial strain it has placed on families and the widespread use of online technology during the global lockdown. Predators and other criminals are now taking advantage of the new normal to expand their reach deeper into the dark web, where authorities have close to zero sway.
As countries prioritise limiting the spread of the virus and recovering from the economic fallout, victims of sex trafficking will become more invisible. One can only hope that the inequalities exposed by COVID-19 will spur governments to more seriously tackle the complex factors that enable sex trafficking to persist.
Data visualisations and research supported by Bianchi Dy.
Bianchi Dy is an urban research scientist and artist. She has worked on projects that combine technology, data visualization and analytics to improve urban planning processes, as well to better communicate important science and societal issues to a broader audience. Learn more about her work at https://bianchi-dy.netlify.app/.
Cover image illustration by Griselda Gabriele.
Design of visualisations by Joceline Kuswanto.