Truth in Advertising: Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia

Websites promoting tours of Southeast Asia are splashed with colorful images of golden temples, exotic jungle flowers, pristine waters, smiling children, beautiful women and happy men. Hyperlinks take a potential visitor to more stunning photos of “must-do” stops, the captions scream: “Beautiful beaches!” “Stunning vistas!” “Massages!”” “Boat rides!” “Colorful markets!” “Ancient temples!”


But it’s time for some truth in advertising about these countries. There are an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide, and more than 24 million of them, or 89 percent, live in Southeast Asia. Here are a few captions that would really catch a traveler’s attention. “Pedophile’s Paradise!” “Go Fishing — and Never Come Home!” “Brides for Sale!” “Fight Like a Man at Age 11!” ” and “Live in Debt Bondage the Rest of Your Life!” The subtitle on all of these captions should be “This is what human trafficking looks like.”

Defining human trafficking

Human trafficking takes a variety of forms and occurs in a multitude of industries, and the most widely accepted definition of it is that from the United Nations 2000 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. First proposed in 2000, the Trafficking in Persons or TIP Protocol, was “open to all States for signature from 12 to 15 December 2000 in Palermo, Italy, and thereafter at United Nations Headquarters in New York until 12 December 2002.”

The heart of the TIP Protocol are Articles 2 and 3, the Statement of Purpose and the Definitions of Terms (p. 2), which state:


“Article 2

Statement of purpose

The purposes of this Protocol are:

(a) To prevent and combat trafficking in persons, paying particular attention to women and children;

(b) To protect and assist the victims of such trafficking, with full respect for their human rights; and

(c) To promote cooperation among States Parties in order to meet those objectives.


Article 3

Use of terms

For the purposes of this Protocol:

(a) “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment,transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;

(b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used;

(c) The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons” even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article;

(d) “Child” shall mean any person under eighteen years of age.”


The TIP Protocol has been promoted in all anti-trafficking efforts for over a decade. Yet, as of 2013, the list of countries that have signed the protocol has over two dozen unsigned lines. Why wouldn’t a country agree to the TIP Protocol? Likewise, why would a country sign the TIP Protocol, then not enforce it? Scholars and activists alike are working at this issue, with mixed results.

Scholarly Overviews

Kevin Bales’ book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press, 1999), was one of the first scholarly works to take a global perspective on human trafficking. His chapter on Thailand is heart-breaking, with detailed narratives of a day in the life of Siri, a 15-year-old sold into sexual servitude by her parents. His skillful interweaving of facts and narrative leave you gasping at the enormity of the issue. In Thailand, he writes, girls are considered inherently inferior and expected to contribute to the family income. Through Siri’s story, the reader becomes familiar with debt bondage, gender discrimination, the sale of children, and the deadly consequences of a life of prostitution at an early age in a region where it is cheaper to throw an HIV-positive girl out on the street than to get her medical care. He also paints a picture of a society where marginalized Hill people are sold into slavery more often, where unmarried and married men are expected to seek the services of a prostitute, and where businessmen expect sex as part of negotiations. Bales’ unflinching approach, his recounting of survivor stories, and his ability to put modern-day slavery in a global context make this book a must-read for any scholar of human trafficking. In addition, every penny he earns from the book goes to anti-slavery activities around the world.

Professor Louise Shelley, author of Human Trafficking, A Global Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University says, “Southeast Asia is a hub of human trafficking, particularly sexual trafficking.” Factors contributing to this, she says, include the years of conflict in the region, weak governments, poverty and lack of access to education, particularly for girls, lack of women’s rights, marginalization of ethnic groups, and rampant corruption, and the use of humans as a form of commodity, or “development capital,” that contributes to the nation’s economic growth and development. Professor Shelley’s comprehensive review of human trafficking, which uses a regional approach examining the push, pull, and facilitating factors for human trafficking was published in 2010 and utilizes data and references going back to 2002. The TIP Protocol was still under debate when those data were gathered. Surely, newer information would tell a different story, right?

The most recent scholarly text, Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight, by Stephanie Hepburn and Rita J. Simon, revisits this important issue and approaches it in a different way, looking at a few selected nations. Using a wide range of peer-reviewed articles, non-governmental organization sources, and the gold standard in human trafficking reports, the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Reports from 2010, 2011, and 2012, Hepburn and Simon arrive at much the same conclusion as Professor Shelley, albeit only for Thailand.

One of the difficulties in examining human trafficking is that it is inherently a covert activity. Another difficulty is that it is often conflated with “human smuggling.” While human smuggling can lead to human trafficking, these are two different issues. In human smuggling, the person pays the smuggler for passage to another country, with the original intent that of a fee-for-service with consent. However, if the person is unable to pay, then the smuggler may, indeed, force the person to work off his or her debt, either in forced labor or in sexual servitude

Yet another difficulty in examining human trafficking is that even within the same country, agencies may collect and classify information in different ways, making it hard to compare data. This also happens here in the United States, as I reported in a recent article. In conversations with colleagues at my university, I found they, too, were frustrated by the lack of available hard data and comparable data. I was also concerned that all the countries in Southeast Asia were being painted with the same brush. I decided to look at the countries at the individual level, and draw my own conclusions.

Using the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report and other sources, I examined the following countries: Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. I examined each for ranking (Tier 1, 2, or 3) type of trafficking, whether the country was one of origin, destination, or transit, push and pull factors, estimates of numbers of victims, promises made to the victims versus reality, suspects, and consequences to the traffickers. For the purposes of categorization, I organized the countries by the captions I suggested at the beginning of this article.

“Pedophile’s Paradise!”


Brunei, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore are all Tier 2 countries and all have a thriving child-sex tourism industry. In Cambodia, in particular, there is a demand for virgins among Cambodian men, the younger, the better, with the belief that younger girls are less likely to have diseases, especially HIV/AIDs. Poor families in Cambodia and Thailand sell their children and women into sexual exploitation. Vietnam is a destination for child-sex tourism with perpetrators reportedly coming from Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Britain, Australia, Europe, and the United States. Children are also forced into begging, street hawking, or forced labor in restaurants, especially in Vietnam.

Women who take jobs in these countries often come from Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, the Philippines, and Malaysia. They come under the impression that they will find good jobs in domestic service, factories, restaurants, or other legitimate enterprises. Instead, they are forced into prostitution or domestic servitude. Women in Vietnam also fall prey to international marriage brokers who marry them off to Chinese, Korean, or Malaysian “husbands,” only to be forced into prostitution.

Thailand’s economy thrives on commercial sex and on child-sex tourism. At particular risk for trafficking are the Hill tribes, an ethnically marginalized people who are not considered official citizens of Thailand even though their families have lived there for generations. Girls are lured to jobs or families sell their children to traffickers, to make ends meet. Despite anti-trafficking laws, Thailand’s efforts to prosecute sex traffickers are inadequate. Criminal gangs, the police, politicians, and a lack of will to undercut a flourishing industry, and hurt gross domestic product, contribute to the persistence and the robustness of sex trafficking in Thailand.

Vietnam exports men to work as laborers in the Middle East and Africa, and in Western and Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and parts of Asia. They work in fishing, construction, agriculture, mining, logging, and manufacturing. They expect good jobs, but instead they have their passports taken away, are paid little or no wages, are confined, and find themselves in extreme debt bondage because of the expenses they incurred to get to another country to work, plus brokers’ fees.

The numbers of victims for each of these countries is unknown. Prosecutions and convictions are not commensurate with the numbers of crimes. Those who are prosecuted often receive short sentences. In Brunei, one Thai trafficker received four years in prison. In Cambodia, there were 40 convictions related to sex trafficking. Efforts to prevent child-sex tourism in Cambodia are meager, and in 2012, a number of convicted pedophiles were pardoned and released.

Vietnam’s state-owned, private, and joint-stock labor export recruitment companies, marriage brokers, border guards, organized crime, and public officials all contribute to the pervasiveness of this transnational crime. Vietnam’s prosecutions focused on transnational sex trafficking cases. Data were not comparable between the Supreme People’s Procuracy and the Supreme People’s Court, with one entity reporting 232 trials and convictions and the other reporting 490. Sentences ranged from probation and fines to 30 years in jail. Efforts to enforce their laws were considered “inadequate” by the US State Department.

Despite a brisk child sex trade and laws against trafficking, per the US State Department Trafficking in Persons reports for the past three years, Singapore has not investigated, prosecuted, or convicted a Singaporean national or permanent resident for child sex tourism.

“Go Fishing — and Never Come Home!”

Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, and Timor-Leste, all Tier 2 nations, have a thriving fishing industry, much of which is supported with forced labor. Men travel to Indonesia for legitimate jobs in fishing, agriculture, factories, and mines, and find themselves trafficked into forced labor. Forced onto fishing boats, many might not see land for five years. During that time, the captain takes away their passports, abuses them, and in some instances, kills them. Last year 1,000 Burmese fisherman were found stranded on a remote Indonesian island. The same story of forced labor, debt bondage, abusive employers, and confinement follows. Rampant corruption of the police, law enforcement agencies, and government officials has led to minimal efforts to reduce forced labor.

A poor nation, Laos exports men to work in these settings. Thailand imports them and sends them out to sea to catch tuna. Some will also be trafficked into shrimp processing plants. In one notorious case, victims were imprisoned in a processing plant in the jungle. Armed guards watched over them to ensure they didn’t escape. Children worked long hours in other plants, instead of going to school. Thailand made minimal efforts in 2012 to enforce the anti-trafficking laws they have in place. The government investigated more cases, but prosecuted and convicted fewer traffickers.

In Timor-Leste, crime pays. Criminal gangs, fishing captains, and employment agencies promise men from Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand legitimate jobs. Instead, they find deception, debt bondage, nonpayment of wages, passport confiscation, abusive employers, and confinement. The government has made limited efforts to reduce labor trafficking, although they increased their patrols of the waters in 2012.

“Brides for Sale!”

Burma, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, all Tier 2 nations, have a brisk trade in the bridal business. Poverty, lack of opportunity, and lack of education send women and their families searching for husbands who will support them and their families. Western men who seek mail-order brides are often looking for a submissive woman. Women who expect to have a loving husband and marriage may find themselves in an abusive relationship or a brothel. Forced marriages are also used to traffic women to China, Korea, and Malaysia, where they are sold to brothels for a life of prostitution. The number of women who are victimized by this practice is unknown. Arrests, prosecutions, and convictions for mail-order brides or forced marriages are rare.

“Fight Like a Man at Age 11!”

Burma and the Philippines, both Tier 2 nations, have the dubious distinction of enslaving children as young as 11 to serve as soldiers. Any community near a military installation is at risk of having their boys impressed as soldiers, and their girls trafficked, including as sex slaves on bases. Street children, boys, even young monks have been forced into the Burmese military. Families are threatened and boys are beaten if they refuse. In Burma, the military operates with impunity.

No visible efforts have been made in Burma to reduce labor trafficking, particularly in the area of child soldiers. According to Human Rights Watch, “In May, the UN secretary-general released his third report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict in Burma… The report indicates that the International Labor Organization (ILO) has verified 770 cases of underage recruitment during the reporting period of April 2009 through December 2012, including children as young as 10.”

In the Philippines, boys as young as 12 have been found working as soldiers. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New People’s Army were identified by the United Nations as among the most “persistent violators against children in armed conflict, including unlawfully recruiting and using children as soldiers.” Two boys were released last year. The number of child soldiers in the Philippines is unknown.

“Live in Debt Bondage the Rest of Your Life!”

Malaysia and Singapore are similar to each other in terms of national wealth, with low unemployment rates, coupled with demand for cheap labor, commercial sex, and child sex.

Malaysia has been a Tier 2 nation for the last four consecutive years, doing barely enough to stay off the Tier 3 list. The Tier 2 Watch List indicates it has a significant human trafficking problem in terms of sheer numbers. It also means Malaysia has “failed to provide evidence of combating trafficking,” and the country has promised to do better next year. Malaysia imports people in search of good jobs from Indonesia, Nepal, India, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Vietnam. Large organized crimes syndicates are involved with both labor and sex trafficking. Oftentimes, the workers are given contracts at the last minute, just as they are about to leave the country. Anxious to get to their new economic opportunity, many don’t read the fine print and discover themselves deeply in debt to an employer, employment agents, or informal labor recruiters who charge a fee for finding the job, transportation, and the like. Debt bondage can be a life sentence for workers who can never earn enough money to repay the traffickers. If they attempt to escape, the crime syndicate threatens harm to the worker’s family. In 2012, Malaysia certified 444 victims and convicted 10 labor traffickers, an increase from zero convictions in 2011. Recruiters who trafficked the victims and employers who confiscated passports and confined the victims to the workplace were not punished in 2012.

Singapore has a low unemployment rate, a booming economy and a per capita gross domestic product similar to that in many leading Western nations. The low unemployment rate and high GDP is like a beacon to poverty-stricken workers seeking a better life from across the region, including India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. There are over a million foreign workers in Singapore, the majority of whom are unskilled or low-skilled. As in Malaysia, these workers find themselves deeply in debt to an employer, employment agents, or informal labor recruiters. Additional indicators of trafficking include confiscation of passports, confinement, withholding pay, threats of forced repatriation without pay, and physical and sexual abuse.

Foreign seamen on long haul fishing boats that docked in Singapore reported enforced labor, abuse, confinement, and nonpayment of wages. Singapore claims no jurisdiction over vessels without Singaporean flags. However, even when docked there were no prosecutions. The number of trafficking victims in Singapore is unknown. With over a million foreign workers, there is a greater risk of trafficking. The Police and Ministry of Manpower reported 350 cases of potential trafficking in 2012; two were substantiated by the government. Domestic workers are not covered under Singaporean labor law, leaving them open victimization and abuse without recourse.

A significant number of young foreign women are recruited ostensibly for legal work in Malaysian restaurants and hotels, but subsequently are coerced into the sex trade. Although the Women’s Charter prohibits forced prostitution via imprisonment or physical abuse, debt bondage and other threats are used to keep these women in line.

Why should you care?

If you don’t live in Southeast Asia or have family or friends from that part of the world, why should you care about human trafficking in that part of the world? Aside from the humanitarian considerations that there is no place for slavery in the 21st century, here are a few reasons Irene Omelaniuk, migration advisor to the United Nations says it is harmful. Human trafficking “depletes human capital, reduces “returns” to home country, leads to breakdown of families, forces children to work, reinforces illiteracy/poverty cycle, perpetuates social inequalities, is a cost to public health, and is a cost to security.”

As a registered nurse with a Ph.D. in Public Health and a vested interested in the health of men, women, and children, I am worried about the global epidemic of human trafficking. I hate the idea that it’s just a business decision to treat women like paper cups to be used and tossed away. I despise the fact that men are being worked into skeletons and their traffickers are growing fatter each day. And I weep that children are being robbed of their childhood, and our world of a healthy future. Just as we cannot keep an influenza epidemic at bay by wishing it away, neither can we make human trafficking disappear by closing our eyes. Human trafficking is an insidious disease, one that can kill the body and the suck the soul out of a country.

What you can do

It may appear that you are not able to do much as one person, but the truth is you are more powerful than you think. Here is a list of a dozen things you can do about human trafficking.

  • Tell others: Expose the truth about modern-day slavery.


  • Invest in Change: Support those on the frontlines and enable them to make a difference.


  • Consume wisely: Hold businesses accountable and ask corporations to join the fight.  Buy Fair Trade products like coffee, chocolate and flowers. Tell big box stores you won’t buy shrimp or fish from Thailand unless it’s certified slave free.



  • Write: Do you know any journalists? Encourage newspapers, magazines and television stations to publish or to write stories about modern-day slavery, and how to stop it.



  • Purchase: Buying products made by survivors helps ensure their self-sufficiency. Shop at the Emancipation Network’s


  • Make help available: Place coasters at bars and sleeves for coffee cups to promote the hotline (888-3737-888). In public places, disseminate posters, brochures and other materials about trafficking. Download them from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at:


  • Organize: Organize your community to address the issue. Community groups can address the issue at the grassroots and are powerful.


  • Advocate for change: Call or write your elected officials. Tell them that you care about the issue of human trafficking and want stronger laws to protect victims all over the world. Keep telling them.


  • Reduce demand: advocate for corporate policies to not buy products made by slaves, zero tolerance in tourism, real estate, advertising and related industries that benefit from human trafficking.



You can change the world for your family, your community, for your country. One step at a time, we can lead people from slavery to freedom. It’s time for some truth in advertising about the global human trafficking epidemic.

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  • About the autor
    Sharon Buchbinder

    Sharon Buchbinder, RN, Ph.D., is an award-winning professor at Stevenson University and novelist who recently published Obsession, which deals with human trafficking and international kidnapping. Follow her on Twitter at @sbuchbinder.

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