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Life on the edge


Strategy 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 Phnom Penh.

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 were grim.

“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 months.

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 jobs.

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.”

By Robert Few
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.
© Robert Few/IFRC






Red Cross volunteers conduct a trafficking awareness meeting in a village in Svay Rieng province.
©Robert Few/IFRC







Prum Choeun with one of her brooms, which she can make and sell thanks to a micro-loan provided by the Red Cross.
©Robert Few/IFRC







“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.”

Neils Juel, head of the
South-East Asia region
for the Danish Red Cross









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 shadows.
©Robert Few/IFRC






“I didn’t know if I
would live or die.
I didn’t know if I
would ever see my
parents again.”

Trafficking victim and
mother, 35-year-old
Kim Sarine



Hard 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 trafficking.

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 traffickers.

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 say.

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, IFRC


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