Organizations battling human trafficking in Southeast Asia are paying increased attention to “the China connection.”
Because of China’s one-child policy, which has only recently been slightly revised, and a preference for sons in Chinese families, the country has a surplus of men and a dearth of women.
This has created a large number of Chinese men who can’t find wives and explains why “marriage brokers” smuggle young Southeast Asian women into China.
The women are promised jobs but end up being forced into marrying Chinese men, some of them living in “bachelor villages” which have sprung up in rural parts of China.
We know quite a bit about this, because a number of these women have escaped and returned to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Some of them have been courageous enough to talk openly about their experiences in an effort to warn others who might be at risk.
But organizations battling human trafficking in China and Southeast Asia find it difficult to measure the progress they’re making.
This is partly because the traffickers, unlike the “kingpins” who run drug trafficking rings, tend to belong to numerous small groups that are only loosely affiliated, according to David Feingold, a Bangkok-based anthropologist and former United Nations official.
It’s also difficult to quantify the numbers of trafficking victims. The statistics available tend to be “guestimate figures agreed upon by experts,” says Feingold, who has studied the issue of human trafficking for nearly two decades.
“Many of the figures have little or no provenance, and achieve currency from repetition,” Feingold adds.
“Most human trafficking is less by organized crime than by disorganized crime—at least in the Mekong region,” he says.
Many of those who become victims leave their homes voluntarily in search of a materially better or more exciting life, says Feingold. “Or as in the case of Myanmar, they are fleeing persecution.”
Poverty and many migrants’ inability to get legal recognition and citizenship in the countries to which they flee are two underlying causes of what Feingold calls “migration gone terribly wrong.”
Signs of progress
Meanwhile, progress against human trafficking can be seen in some areas, though problems continue in others.
This was made clear in a recent series of videos produced by Radio Free Asia called “Breaking Free: Stories of Escape from Traffickers.”
This online multimedia series focuses on human trafficking in China and Southeast Asia, including forced labor on fishing boats, the abuse of undocumented and stateless workers, and the bride market in China.
The series explores possible solutions to the problem and the ways in which survivors of trafficking have escaped, often on their own or with the help of nongovernmental organizations.
As part of the series, an RFA video documents the first case of human trafficking brought to a court in Cambodia. But it also shows how difficult it can be for a recently enacted law and an understaffed court to tackle criminal activities often carried out with impunity.
One video in the series tells the story of a married Vietnamese woman and mother who was tricked by a female relative into working in the sex trade in Malaysia. She had been expecting to get a legitimate job.
Another video focuses on another Vietnamese woman who is drugged and tricked by a female relative into prostitution in China. She dares to escape and tells her story as a warning to others.
In another, a young Laotian woman is forced to work night and day with no free time as a housekeeper in Thailand. When she escapes, she discovers that the money she was owed was never sent to her mother in Laos.
And yet another case tells the story of young Cambodian men from a poor village who decide to work as fishermen on Thai fishing boats. They are treated brutally on the boats and end up as prisoners working on an island off the coast of Indonesia, where they are stateless and forced to work with little food or rest.
The series shows the vital role played by local NGOs not only in rescuing a number of these victims but also in rehabilitating them.
In one sign of progress, Laos and Thailand have agreed to work together to combat trafficking. In August of last year, the Thai police and military rescued Laotian workers who were forced to work in slave-like conditions on a pig farm.
When officers raided the farm on Aug. 22 outside Bangkok they found the Lao farmhands confined to areas with metal bars that resembled animal cages.
The case of Thailand
Reuters news agency did pioneering reporting in 2012 and 2013 on the plight of the Rohingya, a repressed Muslim minority in Myanmar. Thousands of them were then fleeing to Thailand, where traffickers deported them into forced labor in Malaysia.
A prize-winning Reuters series resulted in the Thai government being forced to recognize the problem and make greater efforts to deal with it.
It also resulted in the largest human-trafficking trial in Thai history.
As The New York Times described it, the first witness at the trial, a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar, “told of being beaten and starved by gun-toting captors on the boat that ferried him and more than 200 others to a trafficking camp in Thailand.
The trial was sparked by “the grim discovery in May of last year of a mass grave containing more than 30 bodies in a trafficking camp in Thailand.”
The Associated Press, meanwhile, published the results of a year-long investigation last year into how thousands of Southeast Asian fishermen had ended up as “slaves” catching seafood exported to the U.S. and elsewhere overseas.
The AP series resulted in officials from three countries traveling to remote islands in Indonesia to conduct their own investigations into the plight of fishermen who were trapped into forced labor there.
More recently, a Reuters investigation showed how forced labor among migrant domestic workers in East Asia is widespread.
The U.S. State Department now places a greater emphasis in its annual “trafficking in persons reports” on the risks that workers may encounter in global supply chains.
Examples include workers in mines and factory assembly lines. Some of the workers found in these places are not only adults, but also underage children who work long hours and forced overtime at low pay.
The underlying causes, including poverty and persecution, that drive many trafficking victims to migrate from their home countries have been slow to change. So some of these issues will be with us for a long time to come.
In the case of the bride market in China, experts estimate that the impact of the one-child policy and the country's traditional preference for male children will have an impact for many more decades. And brokers who make a profit from smuggling Southeast Asian women into China will continue to exploit the situation.
RFA's multimedia series "Breaking Free" can be found at: BREAKING FREE: Stories of escape from traffickers
Dan Southerland is the executive editor of Radio Free Asia.