How, where human trafficking begins

Marketplace Staff May 25, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Next week, the US State Department will issue its annual report on human trafficking. Somewhere between 600 and 800-thousand people are bought or sold across international borders every year. Experts guess the total would be in the millions, if you include those sold within their own countries. This trade in people is illegal. Everywere. But still it happens everywhere. Especially in southeast Asia. For the next two days, Marketplace will look at how human trafficking works. And why it flourishes. Scott Carrier spent more than a month in Cambodia for us.

SCOTT CARRIER: I rode out there on the back of Mao’s motorcycle, down a dirt road in a dark night, no stars, a night without a sky. Mao knew where he was going because he’d been there a couple of years ago to get his own daughter back. His sister-in-law sold the girl and Mao had to sell four cows to buy her out of the deal.

The place is called the Chicken Farm, and it’s an open-air slave market.

Somewhere ahead of us in the night there was the river, and the port, ships coming and going from the Gulf of Thailand.

I could see the dim outline of six or seven huts and the doorways glowing red, small shrines lit by candles out front, the smell of burning incense.

The girls sat in pods of light — six in front of me, eight next door, five across the road. They came from the farmlands of Cambodia and Vietnam, twelve to sixteen years old, all for sale — for the night or for the rest of their lives. Little girls with their arms around my waist, the only words they know in English are words I won’t repeat. Looking into their eyes was like falling into a black hole.

I have no idea what happened to them. They could have been put on ships and taken to Malaysia or Japan or the United States or Sweden, or they could have been put in trucks and driven over the river and across the border into Thailand, or they may still be there at the Chicken Farm.

It’s hard to believe it happens like this, but even harder is that everybody knows about it, and nobody does anything to stop it.

In 1979, when the Khmer Rouge fell from power, the population of Cambodia was about five or six million people. This number was down by about two and a half million people from the previous decade, due to a three-year bombing campaign by the United States that killed up to 500,000 people, followed by the Khmer Rouge’s three-year experiment with agrarian reform, where up to two million people died from execution, starvation, and disease. But since that time, in only 26 years, the space we think of as one generation, the population of Cambodia has more than doubled, now approaching 14 million. It’s a country where 60% of the people are under the age of 20. A country where the average income is less than a dollar a day. A country, according to the US State Department, without the rule of law.

The political system in Cambodia is shaped like a pyramid, where people on the top can commit unspeakable crimes, and the people on the bottom have no rights at all. Money in the form of bribes and extortions flows upward through the pyramid, and violence comes back down. Experts in the field of human trafficking will tell you that high-ranking Cambodian government officials are directly involved in and profit from the sale of human beings. Our State Department has even published this claim. The names of these men are known, but they are not spoken, at least not in public.

One night we ate dinner with a family out in the countryside.

After dinner they asked us if we wanted to go see “the old lady.” We said, yeah sure, as it seemed important to them.

She was in a small hut with no light, and it smelled like an animal had died in there. Someone brought a fluorescent tube on an extension cord and she was at least 80 years old, white hair, skin and bones, lying on a wooden bed without a mattress, blanket, or pillow. The toes on her right foot had swollen to twice the size of the toes on her left foot, and there was a three-inch square of skin on the top of her foot that had turned to mushy liquid, like pureed salmon. Above the infection the skin was a black flame, turning green and yellow: Gangrene.

There was no money for a doctor or a hospital. Traditional ointments and teas had done nothing to stop the infection.

I was frightened by the whole thing and turned around and there were 12 children pressed together just inside the door, all motionless and absolutely quiet.

I couldn’t quite take it and stepped through the kids to get some fresh air. Next door there was another, larger hut and inside there was a man sitting on a stool two feet from a small television screen. He was glued to it, as if manning a periscope. The screen showed new cars and houses with carpet and refrigerators, beautiful people with stylish clothes, women with lipstick. It showed this world, another planet, where there’s lots of cool stuff and money, a place where grandmothers do not die slowly, painfully, in the dark from gangrene.

This is how and where human trafficking begins. The children leave the village or are sent away by their parents. They go out into this other world looking for money and stuff to bring back home to their families. It begins as migration and all too often ends up as slavery. It’s hard to understand, hard to look at. But it happens, everyday, in Cambodia and all over the world.

This is Scott Carrier for Marketplace.

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