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Lives Sold Into Servitude

Traffickers Prey on Poor, Cross Borders With Ease in Southeast Asia

By Ellen Nakashima and Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 23, 2004; Page A08

KUCHING, Malaysia -- At first, Sri Hayati insisted that she was 22 years old, the age she once had been told to use to obtain a fake passport. Only after several days at a shelter in the Indonesian Consulate did the nervous, naïve girl reveal during an interview that she was 16.

Sitting on a bunk bed, Sri, the illiterate daughter of a spinach vendor, described how a woman, Hamidah, lured her from her home, a simple wood-plank house amid the swamp grass of Indonesian Borneo, with the promise of a better future. But after she was sneaked across the border to Malaysia, Sri was sold from one trafficker to another, locked up and raped, and forced to be a prostitute.

Sri Hayati, right, embraces another girl inside the shelter at the Indonesian Consulate in Kuching, Malaysia. Sri did not want her face shown. (Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)

Lured Into Prostitution
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"They made me do what husbands and wives do," she said, looking down in embarrassment. Only weeks ago, she was wearing high heels and short skirts. But waiting for a permit to return home to Borneo recently, she was a chubby little girl wearing flannel pajamas adorned with bunnies.

Sri's story is familiar in Indonesia and Malaysia, and throughout this part of Asia, where tens of thousands of children, mostly girls under 18, are sold into servitude across borders every year, UNICEF officials said. Widespread poverty in the region leaves girls vulnerable to traffickers like Hamidah, who entice them with the promise of a decent job with better pay abroad, U.N. officials said. East Asia is home to one-third of the 1.2 million youngsters under 18 who are trafficked worldwide, the officials said.

Traffickers often sell girls right away as prostitutes; at other times, as in Sri's case, they force girls into jobs bordering on slavery. Ultimately, most end up in the sex trade, according to U.N. officials and regional advocacy groups.

"Because there's a lot of money involved, the network is quite elaborate," said Margie de Monchy, UNICEF adviser for child protection in East Asia and the Pacific. "As soon as we suppress trafficking in one place, it pops up in another."

In Malaysia, for instance, a girl who has never had sexual relations can be sold for as much as $3,000, child advocates said. Some traffickers belong to large international crime syndicates, relying on local brokers to recruit girls from villages. Other traffickers operate informally, conducting business on their own.

Thailand and Cambodia, once notorious as sources of child prostitutes, have clamped down. Besides stepping up domestic police investigations, they signed a cross-border agreement last year to identify traffickers and send the girls home, treating them not as criminals, but as people in need of support. China and its five southern neighbors in Indochina -- Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Burma -- are negotiating a similar pact that could be signed later this year.

Part of the problem is porous borders, said Phil Robertson, program manager for the U.N. Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong area. In Laos illegally moving youngsters across the border can be as simple as a 10-minute boat trip across the Mekong River to Thailand, he said. Whether it is Thailand's border with Burma or Vietnam's with Cambodia, he said, "these borders are almost unpoliceable."

The Promise of a Job

Sri left school without learning to read. She said her family could not afford the fees. Her mother, Saenah, interviewed at their home near Pontianak in western Borneo, a large jungle island 450 miles northeast of Jakarta, said Sri was stocky for her age, self-conscious and dropped out.

When Sri's father died last year, Saenah, 50, peddled homegrown spinach in a night market to make ends meet. She was forced to sell the family's table, chairs, cabinets and television for money.

"There are many girls from around here who want to go to work in Malaysia because the economy here is not so good," Saenah said, wearing a purple batik sarong while sitting on the floor of the home's main room, bare except for a woven mat and a poster of Muslim clerics.

So when Hamidah, a well-dressed woman, came to their home one Sunday in March, offering Sri a job in a Malaysian coffee shop, Saenah was listening.

"I said to Hamidah, 'Okay, treat her well. I hope she finds a good job there,' " Saenah recounted.

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