2020 calls ‘people who have been trafficked’ an
important vulnerable population. But human trafficking is
a tricky issue that few National Societies take on directly.
For the Cambodian Red Cross Society, it starts with a helping
hand to guide victims — or those in danger of becoming
victims — back to safety.
You ’re on a window ledge, three floors up. No one
has seen you yet, but down below the streets of Phnom Penh
are busy. It’s 17:00 and there are plenty of people
walking along the broken concrete sidewalks of Cambodia’s
capital. You hear the traffic, feel the wind unsteadying
you. You haven’t eaten well for days and the summer
heat makes you dizzy.
You think about going back inside, through the little window
behind you. But it took a lot of effort for one of your fellow
prisoners to push you up while you grasped the window frame
and pulled yourself onto the ledge.
Perhaps it is better to go back inside and risk abuse or
a beating from your jailers. Not that this place you’re
escaping from is a prison: it’s an ‘employment
agency’ that sends women to Malaysia with the promise
of a good job and good pay.
This was the situation facing 35-year-old Kim Sarine* last
April, a few days after the Khmer New Year celebrations.
Not that Sarine had had much to celebrate. She’d come
to the capital to find work when she was 19, leaving her
tiny, dusty village in Svay Rieng province — the sharp
edge of southeastern Cambodia that juts into Viet Nam. After
years toiling on construction sites and in factories, she
heard about the opportunity of domestic work in Malaysia — work
which promised to pay three times what she was making in
That kind of money — US$ 180 a month — was just
a dream in Cambodia for a woman like Sarine, who dropped
out of school when she was 12 to look after her younger brothers
and sisters at home. And it remained a dream. Instead of
being sent to Malaysia, she was locked up in a shophouse
with 70 other women for almost a month and forced to work
while the company claimed her visa was being processed. Conditions
“There was not enough food for us all to eat,” says
Sarine. “Breakfast was just a spoonful of porridge
with water convolvulus [an aquatic plant somewhat like spinach],
and if you came late for lunch, you wouldn’t get anything.”
More disturbing were the stories that started to circulate
about what the women could expect in Malaysia. Other women
who passed through the agency told of beatings, of having
their heads forced down toilets as punishment for not doing
enough work and of being arrested by the Malaysian police.
So Sarine, up on the third floor window ledge, faced a difficult
choice. In the end, it was made for her — she couldn’t
fit back through the window and, as it turned out, she couldn’t
climb down either, although she tried. Instead, she fell
two floors, breaking her back in the middle of the street.
She lay there for nearly two hours, waiting for an ambulance. “I
didn’t know if I would live or die,” she recalls. “I
didn’t know if I would ever see my parents again.”
While she lay there, the company owner came to shout at
her and then went back inside. She never saw him again. The
police also came to talk to her and then went inside the
company. She never saw them again, either. In the hospital,
Sarine was patched up and sent home to Svay Rieng, but not
before finding out that she had been pregnant for several
Targeting the vulnerable
Back in her village, Sarine’s prospects looked bleak.
She had a newborn baby and no way to earn money because she
couldn’t walk. Fortunately, her village was covered
by the Cambodian Red Cross’s Response to Human Trafficking
Programme. Funded by the Danish Red Cross, the programme
offers immediate emergency assistance to victims of trafficking
and, in some cases, longer-term support to help victims set
themselves up again in their communities.
Sarine qualified for both kinds of help. She received an
emergency kit, containing food for her and her baby, a change
of clothes, mosquito nets and US$ 10. The Cambodian Red Cross
also sent her to Phnom Penh for rehabilitation and arranged
for her to get a wheelchair and, later, crutches. Without
these, she would never have learned to walk again.
Emergency support like this is just part of the trafficking
programme, which works on prevention and tries to address
rape and domestic violence, both of which make it more likely
that victims will fall prey to traffickers. “Because
of the shame and wanting to avoid facing the offenders, they
are very vulnerable if approached by someone making promises
about a better life somewhere else,” says Neils Juel,
head of the South-East Asia region for the Danish Red Cross.
The victims are people like Prum Choeun, who has two sons
whom she loves very much but whose fathers, both rapists,
she can remember as only blurred faces and pain in the dark
fields of her village. Victims like 5-year-old Boupha Lim,
raped in the corner of her grandfather’s wooden house
by a friend of the family and 7-year-old Nary Ouch, raped
by a neighbour while collecting fruit from his garden.
Ouch’s rapist has been sentenced to 15 years in prison,
but Ouch will suffer for the rest of her life. She’s
already lost all her friends because she never leaves the
house and the neighbours do not allow their children to visit
her. “It’s Cambodian culture,” says her
grandmother, Phirum Ouch, with resignation. “If your
house has a problem, no one wants to visit you. They fear
that they will have problems, too.”
This social isolation makes them perfect targets for traffickers.
In response, the Cambodian Red Cross offered Ouch’s
family the usual Red Cross emergency kit as well as a bike
and a micro-loan of US$ 130 for her grandmother to start
a small clothing business. The bike is both the grandmother’s
transportation and her shop, used to get from village to
village and as a hanger to display her wares for sale. “After
[the expenses of] this case, our hands were empty but now
we can start again,” she says.
Just down the road, interest-free loans have allowed rape
victim Prum Choeun to start up a broom-making business, bringing
in enough money to pay back the loan and keep her children
in school and Boupha Lim’s mother has been helped to
expand her leek-growing operation, doubling her income and
making the family much less likely to risk undocumented migration
or heed the lies of unscrupulous employment brokers, who
roam villages like these attracting the desperate to make-believe
Knowing the limits
In all of these cases, Red Cross volunteers make regular
home visits to offer advice and comfort and to make sure
victims know what other services are available and how
to access them. But there are limits to what the Red Cross
and its volunteers can do.
Kanha Sun, who runs the Cambodian Red Cross’s trafficking
project in Cambodia, explains: “We have limited resources,
so we can’t provide shelters or the qualified social
workers and security staff to operate them.”
The Cambodian Red Cross, therefore, is not trying to do
everything. There are more than 60 organizationsin Cambodia
working to prevent trafficking that are signed up with the
United Nations Inter-Agency Project. Shelters, long-term
counselling and criminal justice issues are better dealt
with by others, Sun says. What the Red Cross is trying to
do is complement, not duplicate, existing work, and to play
to its strengths — a network of more than 140,000 members
and access to communities.
For example, volunteers run awareness-raising campaigns
in their villages, warning people what kind of tricks to
look out for. They also encourage discussion of domestic
violence and rape as a way to make these less accepted, both
among women, who can be too frightened or stigmatized to
seek help, and among men, who often do not realize the damage
they are doing to their families and to themselves.
Though the programme is active in ten provinces, it is still
small, assisting only about 100 victims of trafficking per
year, Sun says. Through its violence prevention and micro-loan
programmes, the Red Cross helps many more people. But it’s
difficult to measure whether these investments are decisive
in preventing victims of sexual violence from succumbing
to traffickers in the future.
The Cambodian Red Cross wants to step up work on reuniting
missing family members who have disappeared abroad through
the ICRC’s Restoring Family Links programme. The effort
would mean working more closely with National Societies in
neighbouring countries, and this would require a greater
commitment to trafficking prevention internationally by the
Red Cross Red Crescent Movement (see box below).
“There are no easy solutions to trafficking and our
work here has only just begun,” Sun says. “But
it is clear that the Red Cross has a role to play.”
Robert Few is a freelance photographer and writer based in Beijing.
Victims names have been changed.
Kim Sarine with her wheelchair, which she no longer needs
thanks to rehabilitation arranged for by theRed Cross.
Red Cross volunteers conduct a trafficking awareness meeting
in a village in Svay Rieng province.
Prum Choeun with one of her brooms,
which she can make and sell thanks to a micro-loan provided
by the Red Cross.
shame and wanting
to avoid facing the
offenders, they are
if approached by
a better life
Neils Juel, head of the
for the Danish
What should the Red Cross
Red Crescent Movement be
doing more to assist victims
of human trafficking?
Send your responses to
Phirum Ouch talks to Cambodian Red Cross staff outside her
corrugatediron home, while her granddaughter hides in the
didn’t know if I
would live or die.
I didn’t know if I
would ever see my
times an opportunity for traffickers
With times getting even tougher in many areas due to recession
and crisis, many experts, government officials and international
organizations are warning of a dramatic increase in human
A recession brings new business opportunities for the traffickers,
explains Lars Linderholm, a Danish Red Cross staff member,
an expert on human trafficking and former migration specialist
for IFRC’s eastern Europe zone. Migrants lose their
jobs in western Europe and return home where a cold welcome
awaits them, making them vulnerable to false promises from
In response, National Societies in various regions are doing
what they can. The Belarusian Red Cross, working with the
International Organization for Migration and local authorities,
provides a full rehabilitation service for trafficked individuals
through five ‘Hands of help’ centres around the
country. When trafficked people are referred to the centres
by the authorities, they are given health check-ups as well
as psychological support, legal advice, addiction treatment
if necessary, accommodation and vocational training to help
get them back to work and reintegrated into communities that
often shun them.
That said, human trafficking is a complex issue involving
criminality and law enforcement and many National Societies
defer the issue to other organizations. Often they partner
or lend support to other agencies or deal with the issue
in the context of programmes on domestic or sexual violence.
“I would say 100 per cent of [those affected] are
also victims of violence,” says Ana Ravenco, the president
of Moldovan anti-trafficking organization La Strada, which
has worked closely with the Red Cross Red Crescent. “Once
women have economic independence it is easier for them to
get away from an abusive environment.”
An effort in Abu Dhabi is also being watched with interest
around the Movement. There, the United Arab Emirates Red
Crescent Authority is overseeing development of a network
of shelters (the Ewaa Shelters for Women and Children) which
provide secure shelter and other services for up to 30 women
at a time. Most of the women were forced into prostitution
and are eventually able to return home, shelter administrators
But just as the trafficking problem worsens, the Movement-wide
response is uncertain. Most National Society programmes are
small and susceptible to external funding cycles. Owing to
a lack of resources in Europe, for example, the position
of network coordinator in eastern Europe and a resource centre
housed in Budapest, Hungary, have been eliminated. The network
continues, but activities are scaled back.
Linderholm, who filled that position until July 2010, suggests
the Movement offers something unique — a volunteer
network that could help victims in their countries of origin,
transit and destination. Because victims don’t often
seek police assistance but might trust the Red Cross or Red
Crescent emblem, the Movement is missing an opportunity to
make a difference by improving outreach, screening and sensitivity
to the issue within the context of existing programmes.
– RCRC, with reporting from Joe Lowry,