A WAR OF NUMBERS
As in many places in the world, trafficking in Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region of China (HKSAR) is difficult to quantify, and raw data is scarce. Official HKSAR government statistics suggest that trafficking hardly ever happens. But non-profits working with victims at the street level tell a different story. Where governments interpret the scant figures and dearth of reported cases indicates that trafficking is non-existent, workers on the street insist the limited data is the tip of a very big iceberg.
The South China Morning Post recently ran a story about a woman named Nong (a pseudonym), who was lured by traffickers from her home in Thailand to the HKSAR for forced prostitution. She escaped almost immediately, but not before being raped twice. The experience led to the dissolution of her marriage.
Nong’s traumatic experience betrays a brutal, criminal operation at work in Hong Kong. But authorities in Hong Kong so far do not think trafficking is a major problem and that tragedies like Nong’s story are isolated instances. Last year, according to the same article, only four cases of trafficking were reported to police.
HKSAR has no comprehensive trafficking law. In a recent interview, the Deputy Chief Inspector of the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau (HKSAR) said the police were taking trafficking seriously and pointed to ordinances that he says does the work that a trafficking law would accomplish.
But the U.S. State Department disagrees that a klatch of ordinances does the same work as a trafficking law.The 2012 TIP report called HKSAR’s current trafficking law “outdated,” and went on to point out that HKSAR did not yet meet the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking. HKSAR has yet to adopt the trafficking protocols suggested by the 2000 United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Last year, the US State Department recommended that HKSAR adopt the protocol and “enact a stringent, comprehensive anti-trafficking law.”
A CULTURE OF LICENSE
When a culture tolerates prostitution, the door to trafficking is flung open. HKSAR’s long history of deliberating over the role of prostitution in the culture is today beginning to claim the youth of the city.
Yeeshan Yang, in her groundbreaking book Whispers and Moans: Interviews with Men and Women of Hong Kong’s Sex Industry chronicles the rise of the one-woman brothel, the most common form of legalized prostitution. Essentially, after more than a century of controversy beginning in 1879, prostitution is legal in HKSAR, but in small doses. A woman may sell her body, but laws preclude everything else, from organized brothels to making a living from someone else who is prostituting.
Stringent penalties— HK$10,000 fines for ‘seducing others for indecent acts,’ or 14 years imprisonment for running a brothel— are attempts to keep prostitution in check. As a result, the most common form of prostitution in HKSAR is the one woman brothel, a woman who lives alone and brings customers to her apartment for services. If another woman sells sexual services from the same apartment, it is classified as a brothel.
But a new trend is emerging: compensated dating. This euphemism masks a diabolical practice of young, barely-legal school girls prostituting themselves for extra spending money. Driven by the envy of classmates’ clothes and purses, the dates can be arranged on chat forums, beyond the discretion of the girl’s parents. What’s more, according to the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report for 2011, Hong Kong has seen an increase in the number of reported cases of “compensated dating” including boys. The legal age of sexual consent in Hong Kong is 16 years old, but the availability of online access has made it easy for buyers to procure sex from youth and adolescents.
But the practice— like all prostitution— is incredibly dangerous. Compensated dating comes with serious emotional consequences for the adolescents involved who struggle with depression. In addition, “compensated dating” has an addictive quality; while the girls involved feel a sense of power in that “they can stop whenever they want,” they often do not stop before a pregnancy or disease scare, or before a date turns violent. In 2008, a 24 year old man brutally murdered his 16 year-old date.
While “compensated dating” as a trend is disturbing, it is also perfectly legal under HKSAR’s current laws. “Compensated dating” emphasizes why HKSAR needs a comprehensive trafficking law that bends and flexes to address trafficking and exploitation in all of its forms.
NOT FOR PROFIT
Non-profits reaching out to trafficking victims seem to be saying the same thing, affirming the need for more activism through stories of survivors.
For example, Caritas, a Catholic non-profit in Hong Kong that ministers to women who are victims of abuse, as well as trafficking victims, sees a glaring need for legislation reform. The stories heard by members of Caritas are harrowing accounts of false job offers, forced prostitution and rape, and organized crime. Oftentimes if a victim goes to the police, her family will be harassed or she herself will be ostracized out of shame. These dynamics make it at least plausible that sex trafficking is a dramatically underreported phenomenon.
Other non-profits that reach out to girls engaged in compensated dating report that the trend is growing. One social worker told CNN that her caseload had doubled in a single year. As with anything in an industry of shadows, hard numbers are hard to come by, but the swelling numbers of girls in need of help are impossible to ignore.
Fortunately, HKSAR is forging new measures to address the problem. The Director of Public Prosecutions in HKSAR recently announced a comprehensive data-collection initiative that will hopefully better coordinate anti-trafficking efforts. Instances of international trafficking will be carefully recorded and mapped.
With any luck, the data will begin to confirm what non-profits already suspect because of the stories they hear in the course of their work; namely that women are being trafficked into HKSAR for sex from Thailand, Nepal, and the Philippines. End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT), reports exactly that, and insists beyond the scant data that Hong Kong is a point of transit and a destination for women and children trafficked from all over Southeast Asia.
ECPAT’s Hong Kong Progress Card sheet offers a case study of a 16 year-old Filipina who was lured to Hong Kong by a Chinese recruiter under the auspices of better work. As is the case of most trafficked women, the trafficker paid her airfare and passport to Hong Kong, and then upon arrival was forced to have sex with six men. What’s more, the Filipina met two other young women brought for the same purpose. Her story alone nearly doubles the annual reported number of trafficking cases.
Authorities, like the Director of Public Prosecutions, are beginning to believe that stories like these indicate something far more nefarious than what is currently being reported. If HKSAR adopts the U.N. protocol and develops robust trafficking laws along with it’s comprehensive data initiative, real progress could be made.
- Pray that HK-SAR adopts the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons.
- Ask for revival in HK-SAR that will curb the sale of sex.
- Ask God to strengthen non-profits like Caritas to reach out to victims, and for victims to press charges and testify against traffickers.
- Pray that the light of God would reveal the true nature of sex trafficking in the region
- Pray that anointed teen and youth group ministries would be able to reach adolescent men and women caught in “compensated dating.”