Cover Story

Trafficking Cops

Private activists laboring to rescue child sex slaves and abolish sex trafficking around the world have put together a remarkable coalition. But they face a similarly remarkable opponent: bureaucratic inertia and-shockingly-publicly funded organizations that want sex trafficking professionalized. "You cannot clean this up," counters the Bush administration-yet the State Department stands in the way of its abolition

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

With his pressed, white shirt and slicked-back hair, the young Thai man comes across as an earnest, trustworthy salesman. The product is sure to be satisfactory, he repeatedly tells the buyer sitting across a low table. But the buyer isn't sure. He's from the West, and he doesn't know the laws of this hot, humid country. An older Thai man seated next to the salesman tries to be reassuring. He's a police chief, and he knows the law. The buyer needn't worry: He'll have no trouble with the authorities on this particular transaction.

The product, meanwhile, fidgets restlessly and smiles uncomprehendingly. She doesn't speak English, so she can't be sure what the three men are saying. But she knows the salesman, and she's seen plenty of other men like this Westerner. She must know that they are haggling over her price, or perhaps what services she will perform. Even in the grainy video, shot secretly by the International Justice Mission of Arlington, Va., the girl looks nervous and resigned-and very young.

She is, in fact, only 14. She's not supposed to be in this room, in this situation. Despite the assurances of the older man, Thai law does forbid prostitution, and children, especially, are supposed to be protected from Western predators looking for a cheap night of pleasure.

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But the law means nothing when law-enforcement officials can supplement their meager salaries by renting out such girls by the hour. And there's no shortage of money to pass under the table: A young virgin from Thailand's impoverished hill country or from across the border in China might be indentured for about $100. A single trick with a Western tourist or Japanese businessman repays that investment for the girl's owner, or mamasan, and every additional customer is pure profit.

With the rewards so high and the risks almost nonexistent, Thailand's prostitution industry has an endless appetite for fresh talent. Experts say that some 60,000 girls every year are trafficked into sexual slavery in Thailand alone. Because younger girls command premium prices and can work longer "careers," children are especially prized by brothel owners. Small wonder that an estimated 80 percent of Thailand's 1 million prostitutes are under the age of 16. For many of them, sex trafficking is a death sentence: At least half the child prostitutes in Thailand are thought to be HIV positive.

And Thailand is hardly the only-or even the worst-offender. The Protection Project, an international anti-trafficking effort based in Washington, offers statistics that seem almost inconceivable:

  • Some 200,000 Nepali girls, many younger than 14, work as sexual slaves in India.
  • The island nation of Sri Lanka has an estimated 10,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14 working in forced prostitution.
  • About 10,000 women from the former Soviet Union were forced into prostitution in Israel.
  • As many as 50,000 victims a year are trafficked into the United States.
  • The number of women and children trafficked worldwide each year, according to estimates by the CIA, could be as high as 2 million.

By their sheer magnitude, such numbers tend to dehumanize the problem. Groups like the International Justice Mission are trying not only to rescue the victims but to give them a face and a voice.

In another IJM video, shot during a recent brothel raid in Mumbai, India, rescuers force open a tiny door in a concrete basement wall. Out of the dark, low-ceilinged basement comes a steady stream of young girls, their dirty saris clinging to their undeveloped bodies. Their dark, round eyes blink in confusion and relief as they emerge into the harsh sunlight. Many bury their faces in their hands, as if they were somehow to blame for the things they'd been forced to do.

The U.S. government is trying to help, but critics charge Uncle Sam is fighting the traffickers with one hand tied behind his back.

In 2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking Protection Act, which President Clinton signed, despite reservations, in the closing days of his administration. The new law required an office within the State Department to monitor sex trafficking around the world. Each year the department would issue a list of offending countries with the worst examples relegated to Tier 3-a categorization that would automatically deny them millions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid. Tier 1 and Tier 2 were designed for countries making real strides to combat trafficking. A nation in either of those categories might be mildly embarrassed, but wouldn't suffer the huge financial consequences reserved for those in Tier 3.

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