At a shelter in Cambodia, 16-year-old girl points to the scar where she tried to slit her wrist with a broken plate.
Two years before, she left her province when offered a job as a cleaning lady in South Korea. Instead, she was sold into marriage in Beijing, where her new husband kept her locked up and demanded she give him a child.
“It was like hell,” she tells CT through a translator. “I just wanted to die.”
When she got pregnant soon after, the teen bride escaped at her first doctor’s appointment and contacted her friends 2,000 miles away, who called a hotline to arrange her rescue and repatriation. She and her 11-month-old daughter live in a home operated by Agape International Missions (AIM), among dorm-style bunk beds with about 50 other girls.
In 2015, consulate officials brought 85 trafficked brides back from China, as cross-border labor trafficking of all kinds surged throughout the region. Recent economic partnerships have opened up connections between Cambodia and its neighbors—Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar—making it the easiest time in decades to get in and out. “There were new opportunities,” said Helen Sworn, founder of the anti-trafficking coalition Chab Dai, “but new risks for exploitation.”
Child brides, domestic servitude, and other employment scams fall into the broad category of labor trafficking. It happens on a massive scale around Cambodia; some recent studies estimate a quarter million Cambodians are victims of modern-day slavery.
Yet, “it’s one of the quieter human trafficking problems,” said Barry Jessen, manager for Samaritan’s Purse’s safe migration program in Cambodia. “Sex trafficking is much easier to market.”
Labor trafficking takes place when recruiters deceive workers into taking jobs they know will not pay or treat them fairly. The majority of victims are not teen girls with heart-wrenching stories like the ones at the shelter. They are working-age men who go after higher-paying fishing, construction, or manufacturing jobs in Thailand, only to end up working in illegal conditions and sometimes for no pay.
These men often don’t know that they’ve been exploited—only that they want to get out of the ordeal. Their frustration and financial desperation often outweighs their personal sense of trauma.
All instances of exploitation, Christian activists like Sworn say, are results of the sinful inclination to dehumanize others and use them for personal gain, and they should concern those who believe people are made in the image of God.
Last year, 54 Cambodian men spent four months stuck aboard Thai fishing ships until their vessels were caught poaching in Indonesian waters. International Justice Mission (IJM) worked with the International Organization for Migration and anti-trafficking police to return the men to Cambodia, set them up with aftercare, and document their experience for IJM’s first case in a new labor trafficking project supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by the international development group Winrock International.
“We hope to run as many cases through the system as we can to diagnose gaps” and develop training to help improve the process, said Peter Williams, IJM Cambodia’s field office director. In other words, mirroring the steps in IJM’s successful sex trafficking project, which has gone on to show similar promise in the Philippines.