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, naive 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.
"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.
Sri, she said, was won over by the prospect of becoming the first in her family to own a cell phone and a motorbike.
Before Hamidah took Sri away, she asked the teenager: "Are you married? Have you ever slept with a man?"
"No," Sri replied to both. Neither she nor her mother questioned the woman's intentions, they said.
After a bumpy, seven-hour bus ride, past fields of cabbage and patches of dense jungle, they reached the border. There, Hamidah arranged for a false passport. Sri said the woman instructed her to tell immigration authorities that she was 22.
Hamidah dressed Sri in a Muslim veil and long yellow tunic to mask her youth.
Several child advocates report that girls under 16 and in some cases no older than 12 are increasingly being trafficked for sex. Fueling the demand for adolescents is a mistaken belief that younger girls are less likely to have the AIDS virus, UNICEF and other regional advocacy groups said. Young girls drawn into prostitution are being infected with the virus.
Julie Lebegue, project officer in UNICEF's Jakarta office, estimated that as many as 70,000 Indonesians younger than 18 are coerced into prostitution each year.
Most are trafficked within Indonesia, said Mohammad Farid, a child trafficking expert at Indonesia's human rights commission. But thousands are shuttled abroad and then smuggled by land, sea and air to Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia and even the Middle East and Europe.
From Hope to Despair
At the Malaysian border, Sri said, Hamidah "handed me to Agus, a good-looking Javanese man," who passed her off to "one of his bosses . . . a tall, fat man with a scary face," whom Sri called "Papa Chai." He drove Sri to Kuching, where, instead of finding her a waitress job as promised, he put her to work in his house, cooking and cleaning. The man was "very tough," hitting her on her arms, she recalled.
One morning, several days after she arrived and Papa Chai hit her, she made a break for it, jumping out of a second-story window, cushioning her fall with a blanket thrown onto a pile of wood. Wandering the unfamiliar streets, she met a tall man who took her to a karaoke lounge and offered her a job.
"I thought that a karaoke lounge was just a place for people to sing in," she said. "But I saw many people who were drunk."
The man led her into a room off the lounge. Then he raped her.
"I was screaming and screaming," she said. "He slapped my face." Afterward, she said, he told her that from then on, she would be entertaining clients in the same fashion. He told her she could not go home.
Over the following months, Sri said, she was kept prisoner in the high-rise building that housed the lounge, with about several dozen other young women.
Then, one rainy night three weeks ago, she recalled, a drunken client fell asleep. She fished the room key from the man's pants pocket, put on a T-shirt, skirt and sandals and slipped away.
She wandered in the rain until a man took her to the Indonesian Consulate, where she was given refuge. The consulate opened its shelter here in 1987 to deal with the growing problem of undocumented Indonesian migrant workers seeking relief from exploitation and a ticket home. Though the shelter receives little official support, consul Irsyafli Rasoel estimated it has helped return more than 1,000 Indonesians during the past year. Another shelter has opened at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
With similar refuges rare in Malaysia, advocates say the Indonesian shelters play an important role in protecting the girls and helping them to obtain new travel documents so they can go home.
Malaysia has long been reluctant to acknowledge child trafficking within its borders and lacks a law specifically addressing the problem, advocates said. In recent months, however, Malaysia has begun to investigate cases.
Indonesia has drafted an anti-trafficking bill and intensified a campaign to publicize the dangers posed by traffickers. Indonesian authorities have stepped up their investigations during the last two years. But of 67 cases prosecuted last year, only 27 resulted in convictions, according to UNICEF. The sentences ranged from five months to six years.
One evening several weeks ago, Sri made it back to her village. The consul had obtained new immigration papers and put her on a bus home.
She found her mother at the night market. They embraced.
"I said to my mom that I worked as a housemaid in Malaysia for two months, then someone sold me to a karaoke bar," she recounted. "Then I managed to run away."
Her mother wanted to know, "What is a karaoke bar?"
Sri replied: "A regular place where people can sing."
"I didn't tell her what happened," Sri said. "If I tell her the truth, I would not feel comfortable. She would be sad."
Special correspondent Noor Huda Ismail contributed to this report.