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On 15 June 2012, The Straits Times published Susan Long’s interview with Ms Somaly Mam, a Cambodian sex slave-turned-anti trafficking activist. In the interview, Mam recalled her idyllic childhood among the minority Phnong tribe in Cambodia’s mountainous Mondulkiri province, even though she was abandoned as a toddler. When she was 10, she was ‘adopted’ by an elderly man –whom she calls ‘Grandfather’ – who had promised to help her to find her birth parents. Instead, he beat her into submission and sold her off several times, eventually to a brothel at Phnom Penh when she was only 16. She ran away, but was caught and gang-raped by the police. In 1996, Somaly Mam founded an organisation, Afesip, which has rescued more than 7,00 girls from prostitution and sex-slavery across Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

Mam’s story is just one among countless others. The scale of global human trafficking is truly alarming. In 2004, the U.S. study indicates that about 600,000 to 800,000 people were victims of human trafficking worldwide. Among them, 80 percent were female, 50 percent were minors, and 70 percent were trafficked for sexual exploitation. Two years after the publication of this report, the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) citing data obtained from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states that 12.3 million people are forced into bonded labour, child labour and sexual servitude. The most numerous victims – estimated at 9.5 million – are from the Asian region, with two-thirds of the women and children trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, human trafficking is the second most profitable form of transnational crime, after the sale of drugs. The report estimated that the annual profits of commercial sex trafficking is US$33.9 billion, based on only 1.4 million people trafficked for this purpose.

One the many factors that have led to the rise of human trafficking is globalisation. Almost every aspect of globalisation – free markets, free trade, greater economic competition, decline in state interventions, greater mobility of people and more rapid communications – has in some ways contributed to the trafficking and trade of human beings. Another factor is the end of the Cold War that had spawned numerous intrastate and regional conflicts in whose wake many are left impoverished and displaced. Disoriented and heavily dependant on handouts of foreign aid organisations, these desperate people are often ripe for the exploitation of traffickers. Within a few years of the collapse of the USSR, the Slavic successor states became the main suppliers of prostitutes to world markets, including Asia, the epicentre for the trafficking of women for the sex industry.

It is therefore not surprising that Southeast Asia, with its years of regional conflicts, high levels of corruption, and transitions from Communist regimes, is the hub for sex trafficking. Some scholars think that the geography of the region has also helped this transnational crime. For example, in the Golden Triangle region, women are trafficked from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and south China to work as prostitutes in Thailand. In Thailand, triads with connections with the Japanese yakuza run the lucrative pedophilia tourism. In some countries, the police, politicians and political parties all have a share in the revenue brought in by human trafficking. In her courageous book, Guns, Girls, Gambling and Ganja, Pasul Phongpaichit shows how human trafficking plays an important role in the Thai economy. In a recent TIP report, Singapore is given a Tier 2 ranking, which indicates that although the Republic has not complied with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, it is making ‘significant efforts’ to do so. The Singapore government has refuted the US State Department report, pointing out ‘several inaccuracies and misrepresentations’.

Christian leaders across the ecclesiastical traditions recognise that trafficking in person, either to work as unpaid labourers or as prostitutes, is a form of modern slavery. In a document entitled, Trafficking in Persons the late Pope John Paul II writes: ‘The trade in human persons constitutes a shocking offence against human dignity and grave violation of fundamental human rights’. The Church has a long history of denouncing slavery inspired by passages such as Isaiah 58:6, where the true fast is understood in terms of the liberation of victims of oppression and injustice: ‘Is not this kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?’ At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus used the words of Isaiah 61:1-2 to describe his mission, which includes the liberation of captives and the oppressed.

Christians therefore can never remain detached from the crime of human trafficking and stand aloof from its many victims. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus emphasised precisely this point in his exposition of what it really means to be a neighbour. In telling this parable, Jesus urges the self-righteous lawyer to embrace a new definition of neighbour that goes far beyond the immediacy of one’s family, friends and tribe. The story of the Samaritan helping the stranger who was the victim of a brutal crime demonstrates this process of ‘re-neighbouring’. It urges Christians to broaden their understanding of the neighbour to include the people, sometimes ‘invisible’ to society, who are suffering from disenfranchisement and violation, including the victims of trafficking. We are told that when the Samaritan saw the injured man lying in the pool of blood, he ‘took pity’ (Greek: esplanchenisthe) on him. The Greek word suggests a deep sympathy that enables the sympathiser to inwardly ‘experience’ the suffering of another. The story of the Samaritan urges the Church to learn to sympathise with those whose lives are being destroyed by trafficking. The parable urges the Church to learn to recognise the horror of victimization and to recover her ability to mourn.

The story of the Samaritan tells us that sympathy alone is not enough. It calls the Church to intervene. By stopping by the injured victim, and by nursing and binding his wounds, the Samaritan may be said to have interrupted the ‘trajectory’ of the injured victim, who would surely die if he did not receive help. Because of its complex nature, global human trafficking can only be thwarted through multilateral efforts. Churches should work with civil society groups and NGOs to meet the profound challenges posed by trafficking in repatriating victims, building shelters for returning victims, and even pressuring governments to develop laws and enforce legislation. The Church can be that welcoming community, where victims of trafficking can find a home where they feel accepted and loved, without being stigmatized. The Church can be that healing and nurturing community where people severely scarred can begin to rebuild their lives and explore promising directions for their future. Most importantly, the Church can be the community of grace where victims of abuse can experience the saving embrace of Jesus Christ.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (October 2012).