Like so many around the world, I too was hoodwinked into believing Somaly Mam’s story. The world-renowned crusader against sex trafficking and slavery almost achieved iconic status with the story of her own sexual abuse when she was a 13-year-old girl in Thloc Chhroy, a typical rural Cambodian Village along the banks of the Mekong River.
Her heroic efforts to free and rehabilitate young women from slavery and abuse received support from Hillary Clinton and celebrities like Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon. Mam’s inspiring story led me to write an article Entitled “God and the Victim” for a publication of The Bible Society of Singapore two years ago.
Sadly, an article in the May 2014 issue of Newsweek revealed that Mam’s story about her experience as a sex slave was fabricated. While there is a sense in which this disclosure does not detract from the significant achievements of her foundation that has saved the lives of thousands of girls in Cambodia, it does betray public trust, which is so vital to the work of any non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Next to the illegal drugs trade, human trafficking is the most lucrative form of organised crime that boasts of a complex and truly global network. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, at any one time there are 2.5 million victims of human trafficking, a crime that generates tens of billions of dollars in profit for criminals each year. The US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report (2007) states that approximately 80 per cent of the victims are women and girls, 50 per cent of which are minors.
Louise Shelley, in her excellent study entitled Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, showed that every continent in the world is somehow involved in human smuggling. In Southeast Asia, human trafficking has been a longstanding problem, with poverty and the uninhibited growth of the sex industry as the main causes. Transnational criminals have ingeniously taken advantage of realities such as globalisation, unprecedented migration, and the massive movement of people to create a flourishing business in human smuggling.
The girls and women sold or abducted are often subjected to unconscionable violence and cruelty even before they are sent to the brothels. Many are repeatedly raped and beaten by their exploiters, while others are turned into drug addicts to ensure their total dependence and submission. Even if some of these victims could eventually buy their freedom (a very unlikely prospect) or somehow manage to escape, with almost no education and professional skills, their re-entry to society is at best precarious.
Human trafficking is an offense to human dignity and freedom, and is roundly condemned by Christian leaders across the denominations. In a recent address to international police chiefs, Pope Francis emphatically asserted: “Human trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity.”
In the same vein, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, described human trafficking as “an offence against the created order of equality, an offence against the dignity of humans as called to share in some measure in God’s own creative responsibility, an offence against the interdependence that makes it impossible for any one truly to flourish at the expense of any other person”.
There are hundreds of organisations working tirelessly across the globe to address the problem of human trafficking and rescue its victims. Among them is COATNET (Christian Organisations Against Trafficking NETwork), which consists of 36 affiliates from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox organisations.
But the challenges that these organisations face are enormous, not least because trafficking syndicates constantly change their strategies and modi operandi. Their work is difficult and frustrating also because of the complicity of some governments with these criminal activities.
Be that as it may, no effort must be spared to end this scourge or at least to cripple the criminal networks responsible for perpetrating this evil. However, even as we rescue the victims of human trafficking from slavery and abuse, let us not forget to also rescue the oppressors from the spiritual bondage that has so debased and perverted their humanity.
“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.