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Journalists’ Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem

Guest post by Matthias Lehmann

More often than not, advocacy for sex workers’ rights and the acceptance of sex work as work puts one at odds with members of that part of the anti-human trafficking movement that rejects these ideas, considers prostitution as inherently harmful, and brands anyone disagreeing with them as a member of some imaginary pimp lobby. Another group one finds oneself at odds with are journalists who report about – and, like the former, conflate – human trafficking and prostitution, as their articles frequently include false, inaccurate or misrepresented information.

Chimpanzee Typing - Image by New York Zoological Society (1907)

As sex workers and their allies will confirm, one could easily spend all day writing rebuttals to counter the influence on public opinion of the many sensationalist reports, but one has to pick and choose. The following is a response to Kyla Ryan’s article “Cambodia’s Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem” in The Diplomat. Before I start, however, I would like to state that I am not an expert on the situation in Cambodia, although I previously conducted research and field work in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. I can read, however, and my rebuttal of Kyla Ryan’s article will for the most part analyse one of the very sources she used in writing her article.

Far, very far indeed, be it from me to deny that children are being sexually exploited and, as German politician and human rights activist Volker Beck once put it, “every trafficking victim is one too many”.

However, a quick glance at the source of Kyla Ryan’s alarming statements, a report by ECPAT-Cambodia, reveals that what she should have focused on is the rape of children in settings that are not related to human trafficking.

Let’s look at the data and let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the research conducted is methodologically sound and all of the findings accurate.


The report by ECPAT-Cambodia states that in 2011, “658 cases of rape were referred to the 33 participating NGOs, involving 671 victims”, 483 of whom were minors (71.5%).  While about half of these 483 victims were teenagers, 169 were aged between 7-12 (35%) and 77 between 1-6 (16%).

The report continues to state that the next highest age group, those aged 18-25, which ECPAT labels as ”young people”, accounted for the majority of adult victims, meaning that grouped together, victims aged 0-25 accounted for 90.5%.

I am not going to dismiss the fact that such an overwhelming majority of rape victims was rather young or even very young, but one should not overlook the fact that ECPAT-Cambodia labels youth here as “children” and adults as “young people”. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see that the organisation’s self-interest plays a role here, regardless of how honourable its goals might be. The report does emphasise that “the majority of victims (approximately 1 in 3) were in the 13-17 years age group”, but I’ll come back to that later.

The report found that, “consistent with all previous Database Annual Reports”, “rape offenders in Cambodia are generally not total strangers to the victims, and usually know the victim fairly well”. The report suggests “that police and judicial investigations, as well as authorities and NGOs, should consider parental and neighborhood relations as key elements in preventing and protecting children (and adults) from rape”.

In the year 2011, 98.8% of the offenders were Khmer, with 0.9% foreign and 0.2% Cham/Muslim. (No further details are provided.) The total number of offenders was 770, therefore, the 0.9% correspond to 7 foreign offenders (rounded up) in the cases referred to the participating NGOs.

Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation

Looking at the data about trafficking reveals that in 2011, “71 cases of sexual trafficking were referred to the participating NGOs, involving 88 victims”, 66 of whom were minors (75%). While 55 of these 66 were teenagers, 10 were aged between 7-12 (15.2%) and 1 was aged between 1-6 (1.5%).

The report continues to state that “the number of child victims in the very young age groups of 1-6 years and 7-12 years was relatively high, with nearly 17% of the total child victims belonging to these two age groups”. As above, the report also states that, when grouping victims aged 0-25 together, they accounted for 92%.

Once again, every trafficking victim is one too many and I am not going to dismiss the fact that 11 children under 12 years of age were trafficked for sexual exploitation. One should not overlook the fact, however, that in the text of the report, ECPAT-Cambodia uses percentages rather than the number of cases and again joins age groups together, since, obviously, 17% is a more useful number than 11 to raise awareness – and funds! – and the same goes for anything in the 90% range.

The report does not provide details on the offenders who exploited the trafficking victims as customers but only on the 76 recruiters involved in the 71 cases.

Again, the report found that, “consistent, in general terms, with all previous Database Annual Reports”, “recruiters of sexual trafficking in Cambodia are generally not total strangers to the victims, and usually knew the victim fairly well” and suggests that “police and judicial investigations, as well as authorities and NGOs, should consider parental and neighborhood relations as key elements in preventing and protecting children (and adults) from sexual trafficking”.

Listing percentages only, the report states 50% of the recruiters were Khmer, 10.5% Vietnamese, 7.9% Thai, Other Asian 5.3%, European 10.5%, and American 3.9%. The report states that “there is limited consistency across the years in regards to the nationality of recruiters” and that “it is too soon to determine whether the drastic increase in European/American recruiters in 2011 constitutes a new trend”.

Granted, a combined 14.4% for European and American recruiters is quite a marked increase from 0% the year before. Once again, the use of percentages is somewhat conspicuous, however. Converted into actual numbers, the 14.4% correspond to ten recruiters/traffickers. All foreign recruiters listed in the table accounted for 38.1% or 29 recruiters/traffickers.

It is interesting to note that in 2011, 51.6% (or 39) of the recruiters/traffickers were female, while 48.4% (or 37) were male.

Misrepresenting the Problems

Let’s look at Kyla Ryan’s article at The Diplomat then.

Ryan (or her editor) chose as the headline “Cambodia’s Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem”, when in fact, the ratio of rape to trafficking victims in Cambodia in 2011 was roughly 7.5:1 (671:88), at least according to the very source Ryan’s article is based on.

The byline states that “the country still sees a trade in girls as young as five years old”. While that may be true, the report this statement is based on lists a single victim aged 1-6 years old and doesn’t actually reveal the gender of the two-year-old victim.

Speaking of gender: nearly 20% of the overall trafficking victims in 2011 – the report doesn’t provide figures broken down by age groups – were male, and the report does state that the “data is a reminder that boys and men are also victims of sexual abuse and exploitation … although this may often be contrary to popular belief”. Articles such as Ryan’s are one of the main reasons why such popular beliefs exist.

Ryan is also guilty of perpetuating the common “male foreign perpetrator, female local victim” paradigm when she writes that Phnom Penh is “where foreign men come to seek sex with young girls”. While I cannot deny that men, foreign or local, may seek sex with young girls, the data on which Ryan bases her article says nothing at all about foreign men who bought sex from young girls. Instead, the report does say a lot about rape, but Ryan chooses to mention rape only in connection to brothels. The only foreigners mentioned in the report are the 29 recruiters/traffickers in 2011, eleven of which were European or American.

While Ryan does allude to the “complicated” situation where family members are involved in human trafficking, she curiously writes that “many young girls are not forced into the trade by criminals, but by family members”. I never knew that being a family member and being a criminal were mutually exclusive. One may disagree with me here, but it appears that Ryan prefers to blame “foreign men” for the crime, with family members merely being complicit in it.

Nobody should dismiss or trivialise sexual violence against children, youth, young adults, or adults in general. My issue with articles such as the one by Kyla Ryan is that they misrepresent the problems and fuel the rampant, and harmful, anti-trafficking panic while largely ignoring the actual problems.

Ryan fails to mention the fraudulent and exploitative activities of Somaly Mam – her organisation AFESIP was one of the NGOs contributing to the ECPAT-Cambodia report – and the underlying problem that more often than not, only lurid stories make for effective fundraising for anti-trafficking organisations, a problem which also seems to affect the way ECPAT-Cambodia wrote its report. Ryan also leaves out ECPAT-Cambodia’s recommendation to give greater consideration to “parental and neighborhood relations as key elements in preventing and protecting children (and adults) from sexual trafficking”. I must assume it didn’t fit into the narrative she wanted to engage in.

The report by ECPAT-Cambodia states that 1 in 3 rape victims and 2 in 3 trafficking victims were in the 13-17 years age group. Where rape was concerned, all offenders were male and nearly all were Khmer, but where trafficking was concerned, a slight majority was female and the majority was Khmer, though 38.1% (or 29 people) were foreign.

To summarise: according to ECPAT-Cambodia’s report, the bigger problem in Cambodia is rape, not trafficking; the main victims of both rape and trafficking are youth aged 13-17; and the offenders are overwhelmingly locals – where rape is concerned this is entirely the case, and where trafficking is concerned they comprise the majority.

Kyla Ryan’s article paints another picture. “Read The Diplomat, know the Asia-Pacific?” Hardly.


I said above that for argument’s sake, I would assume that the report by ECPAT-Cambodia is accurate, but I strongly recommend anyone truly interested in the subject to read further, because regardless of its wording or use of percentages, the report does provide a number of interesting facts, e.g. who was classified as recruiter/trafficker – included were owners or employees of brothels or massage parlours – or the reasons why “92% of victims agreed to go with the recruiter” – 29.2% stated they “wanted money to buy things” – or that “the majority knowingly entered sex work”. Admittedly, 42.1% said they were promised other occupations and then forced into sex work. One mustn’t discount, however, that some respondents might well have hesitated to admit they knowingly entered sex work, for fear of the stigmatisation they would face as a result of that. By suggesting that, I certainly do not mean to dismiss any actual cases of sexual exploitation. But equally, one must not ignore that due to the stigma attached to sex work, people selling sex frequently experience discrimination and violence, which even extends to their children and other family members, exacerbating their health risks and isolation and depriving them of their basic human rights.

Matthias Lehmann is a doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast. His prior research and field work dealt with human trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-region and human rights violations against sex workers in South Korea. His current research focuses on prostitution legislation in Germany. His blogs can be found here and here.

12 responses »

  1. Very informative. Your points on doing more research really hit the nail on the head. One must always look beyond the numbers. Stats are often manipulated to reflect or support an argument or agenda.

  2. Very good article! It’s a bit pity that we (supporters of sex workers’ rights) always have to emphasise that we do not condone trafficking and don’t deny the horrors of forced prostitution, as if it’s not self-evident.. But that’s how prostitution abolitionists will be inclined to view it immediately – if you defend the rights of sex workers and challenge myths about trafficking – you must be a monster and a pervert.. 🙂

    Apart from that – I was surprised that ECPAT uses “minors” so broadly, to me minor is under 14 and between 14 and 18 – a juvenile (and from 0 to 18 – underaged).. And then to include a group 18-25 as “young people”? What’s next – from 26 to 33 are “fresh out of college” and from 33 to 38 – “young looking adults”? ECPAT should only deal with people up to 18, otherwise – drop the C… But everyone likes using the “child card” to draw sympathy for their cause.

    But in general – yeah, it gets almost old and tiring trying to debunk myths about trafficking and prostitution since new ones come out every day, but I’m glad that you and quite a few other people still persist in insisting on fair representation, proper use of statistics and conclusions, etc.! Keep up the good work!

    • The subject matter isn’t funny but your “fresh out of college” and “young looking adults” age groups made me chuckle.

      As for ECPAT Cambodia: I had earlier made an enquiry to a colleague and learnt that ECPAT Cambodia was a heavily abolitionist, save the victims-type organisation, running e.g. a “Free A Girl Award Competition”.

      Interestingly, the ECPAT Cambodia website is currently down, and on their former JustGiving website it now says:

      “We’re very sorry – Page ‘ECPAT-Cambodia’ has been cancelled. The owner of the page has cancelled it. Donations can no longer be made to this page.”

      Who knows what’s brewing there. On their Facebook page, they were still busy posting until 2 days ago.

      (See also my comment below about my lovely exchange with The Diplomat’s editor.)

    • I would have thought that Matthias, with a background in law, would have been able to put you straight on the age of majority in international law. It is 18 in almost all countries. Anybody under that age is legally a minor so that is a non issue here.
      The handful of exceptions do not include Cambodia, or Thailand for that matter.
      Should 18-25 year olds be included in reports of trafficking or prostitution? Why not? They are targeted by traffickers, pimps and johns for their youth after all.

  3. Thanks for breaking it down like this. We can just now send this article out to all the other journalist who make these same mistakes. Too, its interesting that the actual numbers show that rape and sexual assault are by far more prevalent and pose a much larger threat to public safety than ‘traffickers’ yet all the monies are going to towards promoting criminalization of our customers instead of prevention and apprehension. Has there ever been a comprehensive sexual assault program that has research accompanying it that shows which prevention education works?
    And finally, it would be really good journalism to include in these types of articles the amount of monies the said groups are receiving for ‘trafficking’ as opposed to sexual assault prevention and healing.

  4. georgefinnegan

    You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. The purpose of the article wasn’t to say that trafficking was the biggest problem in the region – it was to discuss an on-going problem. It was a pretty insignificant article to begin with. It just made statements that were true, but not as true as you seem to want them to be to serve your purposes. I have a hard time seeing why you were offended by it or would take this much effort in analyzing it.

    • Ryan certainly has every right to focus on trafficking, rather than rape, but I believe she failed to connect the dots and dig deeper. I reject having used this critique to serve my purposes, but one could agree that the article was insignificant, simply because there are so many like it. That’s why I wrote one could spend all day refuting them. I found this one particularly interesting because there was in fact a source used other than articles by other journalists and the author still managed to mislead her readers. That’s all.

      • Your ‘take down’ of her article is a pile of number crunching and semantics. Is she not working towards the same goal as you are; to eliminate child prostitution in its entirety?
        What difference does it make if the child mentioned in the byline was that particular 2 year old? I assume that with a problem of this scale there was also a five year old girl, hell I’m sure that even you have seen the documentary television reports of entire families of children sold and raped by these animals.
        ” Many young girls have not been forced into the trade by criminals but by family members” seems self explanetory rather than “curious” in an area where you say yourself that most child/ youth rapes are conducted by local persons known to the victims?!! 1 in 5 victims are male. She mentions that. If she doesn’t mention it loud enough write your own article on the subject. Not this bitchfest. Excuse for one. What is your problem? Have you become so overwhelmed by the scale of it all that you have become immune to it? Or are you just competing for the same slice of NGO pie at the expense of victims?
        “far be it from me/ I’m not going to dismiss the fact that/ while I cannot deny/ admittedly/ etc..” Ryan uses some figures incorrectly, but so what if it’s 11 % not 17 % , and if only 14.7% of those prosecuted were foreigners. If going after the foreign scum cleans out the local scum, why are you really complaining, so very bitterly? Reads like a bad case of compassion fatigue to me.

        • Correction 14.4% European/ American and 38. 1% total recruiters were foreigners..that’s a staggering figure. Wtf are they doing there if the trafficking is not a massive problem?

        • I’ve worked for an anti-trafficking NGO for less than a minimum wage and without any benefits, but it was enough to survive and good work. That organisation was one where people do not conflate sex work and human trafficking, which was one of the contributing factors for their excellent work receiving less funding, since they refused to employ tactics like Somaly Mam to attract donors but actually shielded children from “sex trafficking voyeurs” instead of exploiting and retraumatising them.

          People I have little compassion for are those who rant without substance. I’m not going to engage in any further exchanges with you. At least on blogs like this one, people like you, who hold different views, are permitted to comment. That’s more than I can say for the lot of prostitution-abolitionist blogs I’ve seen. You are welcome to have the last word.

  5. This is kind of odd for me. I am google searching Child Trafficking in hopes of getting in contact with someone who possibly works in this field either a journalist and or someone who might advise me rather our story should be told. As it in my humble opinion is a very important part of child trafficking that needs to be shown. For now I will not say in which country, third world. If one uses google a case involving two men child trafficking reflects my daughter as a witness and it goes on and on about the details. What it does not say is they prosecuted one of the child girls. The facts are basicly a sex predator targets a group of 13-14 year old girls, One of them makes some sort of sexual exchange. They all go to jail.. Including my daughter in which the courts extorted some major fines with the threat of 5 years but a couple of grand and it was reduced to 1.5 years. Basicly the family of the girl that involved in the sale was reasonably angry and blamed her friends. For what ever bologna they can drum up to charge children with a crime. Perhaps I could understand if in the end it was not just some extortion wrap to extort money. 5 grand and she would have done zero time.. What does that tell you and over the year and half she was basically held ransom. her release date would change and as they ponder the mistakes I think its obvious. I tend to wonder how many other families are torn apart when someone targets a child and the victims parents are so emotional they pressure and demand to even have the other children prosecuted. I clearly understand the frame of mind of the victim’s parents but in our situation we where also victims, My daughter simply chose not to take part in the situation. But I expect the courts to rise above emotion. Now trying to respect privacy of my family I wont say where but let me tell you Im not joking when I talk of extortion. Obviously I think its a missing part of the story every time I see a report on child trafficking. I mean I never heard of the 14 year old teen going to jail for being with a girl who was a victim unless she took some part in that business. Even still yet both the girls are victims in my opinion. What I find most important about this story is how can we supporting Law Enforcement, allow them to prosecute the children involved, Even if selling sex is a crime, How does one expect girls to ever come forward? It is a lot more easy to force a girl into slavery if they fear they can not go to the law for help. Now I tend to consider all f the young girls who know of my daughters case should they ever get involved in something like this will they be afraid to go to there family and tell them that a friend is involved with a bad guy, because it might result in 5 years in prison for knowing about it? I my self and my family do not need problems with the country so I do not wish to name the government involved nor do we blame that government for the way things are today. But If our story could help to change things to protect our children not jail them, My you my daughter spent the next 1.5 years in jail with drug dealers and murders and rapists.. So you go figure the logic in that.. Welcome to the third world..


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