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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

A regional and interdisciplinary approach to human trafficking with the intent of sexual exploitation in South-East Asia

Pierre Le Roux et Emmanuel Dialma

Texte intégral

1September 2004

2The trafficking of women and young girls has clearly been on the rise during the last few years, due to increasing political, economic and social divides between rich and emerging countries. Tens of thousands of women and girls are trafficked in South-East Asia, from rural to urban areas, and from there to other countries (the Americas, South Korea, Europe, Japan, the Middle East, Singapore and Taiwan). This very lucrative illicit trade, is placed third in the world behind drugs and arms, but is less dangerous for those who organise it. The term, “trafficker”, covers a wide semantic field from a simple villager, sometimes the father or brother of the victim, to mafias, triads and other yakuzas managing billions of dollars. Active and present in South-East Asia, traffickers prey on a significant number of young uneducated women and girls, with no visible means of support, who are often a burden to the family and, in many cases, are subject to being “sacrificed” for one reason or another, according to the culture.

3Cambodia is geographically situated at the heart of mainland Indochina, but also ASEAN. Being sparsely populated (about 12 million inhabitants) and small in size (surface area being 185,035 km2), the country enables successful surveys in terms of the results it yields as a small team. Since it is situated between Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, it has turned out to be a “transit” country on a regional level. This is thus the reason for which Cambodia is an appropriate platform for the study and understanding of human trafficking for sexual slavery in South-East Asia, which is on the rise with globalisation.

4It is one of the reasons for which the NGO, AFESIP has set up its headquarters in Cambodia, in spite of the country’s increasingly precarious economic situation at the end of a long war, genocide and the fact that prostitution, which is rife in this country, is different from what could exist elsewhere in the region. Trafficking seems more systematically visible and structurally set up than in Thailand where there are many independent prostitutes without a “protector”.

5Since 1996, more than 2,000 women and young girls have visited the AFESIP centres. From January 2004, the centre’s capacity increased to nearly 300%, enabling the simultaneous reimbursement of medical expenses for 200 victims in Cambodia, and 30 at the drop-in centre in Vietnam (in Ho Chi Minh city), not to mention the recent opening of free medical and psychological care centres for prostitutes, in Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh city, where thousands of visits every year are expected.

6If we look at the map of South-East Asia regarding human trafficking, a strange hole immediately emerges, represented by Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. These are countries with relatively high living standards and are considered as countries that “take women in”, while the surrounding countries such as Burma, Laos, China, Cambodia and Vietnam, considered being economically backward or, at best, “emerging”, are instead countries that “provide women”.

7Human trafficking, similar to all the other illicit trades (drugs, arms, etc.), by transnational definition, requires the crossing of borders. Much like slavery, it is considered “external” when the victims overstep the line established between countries. This is the case when young Vietnamese women are encouraged to go to Malaysia via Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. For these reasons, the study of human trafficking does not require a national approach (only Cambodia, in the case of the example given), but a regional approach (Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and China). Human trafficking could also be considered “internal” when the phenomenon concerns a region, social class, particular ethnic group, whose victims turn up in droves, within the same country.

8On the other hand, human trafficking is a total social phenomenon because it affects all aspects of human life and in order to understand, analyse and possibly try to fight it, it is important to tackle it from different angles, and then to connect them i. e. using several disciplines: as André-Georges Haudricourt explained, “it is the point of view and not the object that defines a science”.

9In order to solve the human trafficking mystery, it is necessary to bring together related ideas, methods and conceptual tools from the fields of ethnology, sociology, social, cultural and cognitive anthropology, psychology, geography, linguistics, history, economics, demography, remote-sensing via satellite and mapping etc.

10On the other hand, we must try to unify forces so that studies, actions and goodwill can be carried out and to bring together existing forces, be they institutional or private, international or national, as spreading them out is ineffective when going against this remarkable entity of effectiveness that is organised crime, in terms of practical cooperation.

11Regarding the complex theme of human trafficking, the connection between fundamental research and applied research exists almost naturally as long as (taking the example of an NGO such as AFESIP) it seems to act with relevance and be practical. It must firstly understand the situations and complexities of the problem in question. In the case of sex trafficking, it is also necessary to find out the regional status of prostitution and the mafia in previous decades, in order to establish a basis for comparison from a diachronic view, in addition to comparing spatial and cultural aspects. Research must be conducted on more general and necessary issues, such as incest, relationships and marriage, matrimonial practices, relationship with one’s own body, slavery, debt, honour, money, sexuality, mother-child or father-child relations, until pieces of written and oral literature offering a fixed social model are found.

12The results of such surveys from fundamental research that serve as an objective in terms of both its practicality and understanding of a situation, short-term help for victims and mid-term legal, educational and sanitary prevention, put forward to the states by NGOs or development organisations, bring together fundamental research and applied research, scientific knowledge and socio-economic development action.

13If, however, the organisation concerned, such as AFESIP, centres its approach on the victim in a holistic manner, favouring the fish’s point of view to that of the fisherman’s, by taking care of their needs from A to Z, from their rescue in an emergency and often dramatic situations to their social and economic reintegration, it is necessary to extend the study of the social phenomenon of human trafficking much further. We should therefore also call on ideas from economists, development agents, engineers and even agronomists, as the reintegration in South-East Asia is most often rural, as is the majority of the population.

14Reintegration, however, is very difficult. The low level of the victims’ economic, social and cultural wealth needs to be overcome through support, such as overcoming illiteracy in Khmer and Vietnamese, providing material and technical resources, medical and psychological care in rehabilitation centres, with teams of doctors, psychologists, social and educational advisors. The difficulties encountered are common to all those involved in the reintegration of the poor and affected populations, but they are, however, faced with a battered and deeply corrupted labour market. The economic independence of victims is as problematic as it is essential. It is the best guarantee and also the best prevention against risks of having a relapse, succumbing again to the orders of those who traffic them. According to Pierre Legros, co-founder and Director of AFESIP, the only true solution is to allow each developing country to have an actual job market, an appropriate legal framework exempt from corruption, a stable economy and minimal social protection. Until this is achieved, AFESIP continues to rehabilitate about a hundred victims every year. However, if the majority of the victims wish to return to their community, many of them loose the progress they had made, sometimes returning to prostitution (and therefore to trafficking), which is often fantasised about or thought of as lucrative. In order to be efficient and not only have reassuring statistics, the solution is to offer an alternative to victims with the aim of establishing a permanent social and economic rehabilitation programme, i. e. with financial independence for each one of them for the rest of their lives.

15In order for that to happen, it must be emphasised that AFESIP is one of the rare NGOs in South-East Asia, if not the only one, to have its own research unit built on a research unit model, like that of the CNRS or university or EFEO (École française d’Extrême-Orient) model. This way of viewing the connection between development and fundamental research in the private sector, and that of helping the victims, could be seen as experimental or, at least, innovative – similar to the objectives of setting up an actual rehabilitation programme, or even financial independence for victims with follow-ups in the long-term, creating, if needs be, a favourable economic background for this cause (small and medium enterprises, for example), – but in any case, despite the fact that its connection is fragile and needs to be improved, it is in the process of being set up in Cambodia, within the AFESIP.

16The interdisciplinary and inter-institutional osmosis, as suggested previously, would, however, be incomplete if the question of meaning had not been brought up, and consequently so would the possible obstacles to this joint action and against this type of modern slavery that is sex trafficking.

The double decline of the sex market as a scientific object

17The lack of scientific literature on certain matters, while being readily available for others is a given with a high heuristic value. It shows that there is a relationship between society and the sex market. Not surprising if this emptiness concerns a new social fact, but when this distinguishes the “oldest profession in the world” as a form of exploitation, there is enough reason to be astonished and to question, legitimately, the vacuum and its reasons for its existence.

18This silence is as surprising as it is a “phenomenon”, etymologically speaking, i. e. an “observable fact” and that the sex industry in terms of human trafficking concerns all societies, persons, times and places, although today, through “globalisation”, it is reaching a scale that has never been seen before in history.

19Firstly, society and collective conscience are moral entities even before existing tangibly. In order to continue and survive, there has to be a strong sense of morality coming from the individual and, in this regard, the non-questioning of values and ideals in general. Sex in particular, or its trade, is often indicative of whether a society is functioning well or has social control over its individuals, especially when a proportion of the GDP comes from this social phenomenon, and that the government and decision-making circles are generally in collusion with transnational organised crime that manages the sex sector by the “social control” of individuals, even by reducing them to subjects in the form of objects. Furthermore, this constraint is all the more efficient as it is carried out by not questioning its means. What is power without meaning? The value and place attributed to sex and sexuality, their social, even political usage that authorises its trade or not, free or forced, reveal thus, the place and limits given to the individual, under the scrutiny of analysis if it is effective, their free will, domination, rights such as for example, that of freely owning and controlling their own body. However, at the same time, the learned is against power since he questions its ruling instruments and domination.

20Secondly, questioning sex generally, and particularly its social usage, is much like taking Icarus’ risk of burning his wings so that he could become closer to God and meaning. It is similar to sitting at the table of the Gods, socialising and daring to speak with them using informal terms. Any introspection, even a psychoanalytical approach, whether it is understanding or a repression, comes back to sex, if it is not already about sex; sex is death and therefore also life; and coming to terms with it is eminently divine. In South-East Asia and in Oceania particularly, death is seen as the bearer of life, a step towards life once again, via the reproductive woman and her child brought into the world out of nowhere, but, nevertheless born of bygone ancestors if not mixed with them.

21Any individual, be they academic or not, beginning to reflect on the body, flesh, practices of pleasures, any subject relating to the place of sex and sexuality, to the importance given to goods, assets, wealth (it is a question of making a trade out of sex) cannot help but be worried, disturbed or worked up. The issue of human trafficking takes us back to the most intimate aspects of one’s life – fear, worries, anguish, even the refusal to understand an existential matter seeking incarnation.

22Doubly repressed by a civilisation that perceives it with an evil eye and by individuals troubled in the presence of such radical questioning, doxography concerns less dangerous, scathing, radical or subversive thoughts. Hence, the need for an interdisciplinary approach to end the sexual exploitation of human trafficking.

23Science, be it human or social, has a duty to accept these inevitable burdens that weigh on our conditioning and which places value on it. Without such burdens we would not exist. It is also its duty to desecrate sex and to put it in its right place. Without this, scientific discourse will cease to exist, as it would be conditioned by the freedom of expression.

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