BALI, Indonesia (Reuters) - Up to a quarter of a million women and girls in Southeast Asia, mostly adolescents, are forced into prostitution each year and face violence and the prospect of contracting HIV/AIDS, researchers said on Wednesday.
The researchers, in a report documenting criminal activity in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, predicted circumstances would worsen as the financial crisis prompts women in the region to migrate in search of work.
Trafficking victims, many of them aged 12 to 16, are raped, locked up, denied food, water and medical care or forced to take narcotics and alcohol, they said.
“Victims of trafficking suffer horrendous, horrendous violations of human rights, deprivations of the most basic human dignity. It’s a form of enslavement,” said Jay Silverman, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Narcotics and alcohol were used in Indonesia and Cambodia “to keep these people in bondage,” he said. A premium was paid for young girls, prompting traffickers “to continually bring them in to maintain the supply”.
Caitlin Wiesen, an HIV expert at the U.N. Development Programme, said most victims were lured away by promises of jobs as domestic workers or in restaurants to end up in brothels where they faced “extreme situations of violence and exploitation.
“Asia is both the source and the destination,” she added.
The study, entitled “Sex trafficking and STI/HIV in Southeast Asia: Connections between sexual exploitation, violence and sexual risk”, was undertaken by the UNDP and the Harvard School of Public Health.
It found that in Thailand, trafficked girls were subjected to more frequent sexual encounters than sex industry workers. Incidence of anal sex, with a greater risk of HIV infection, was three times more common.
In Indonesia, HIV prevalence was nearly 20 percent among trafficked women who had been sexually exploited for a year or more. Seventy-five percent had experienced violence.
Malaysia, it said, was the destination for a third of the women and girls trafficked from Indonesia. In Cambodia, 73 percent of women and girls who were rescued tested positive for sexually transmitted infections.
The researchers said the financial crisis would prompt more women to look abroad for jobs, making them easy prey.
“They are getting more desperate and travelling under more unsafe circumstances that make them terribly vulnerable to unsafe migration, HIV and exploitation such as trafficking,” Wiesen said.
Rosilyne Borland of the International Organisation for Migration said criminals “take advantage of places where people are looking for work, places where people need to go find a better life”.
The researchers called for a dialogue between the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and law enforcement agencies. Police had to be “sensitised” to the problem and avoid raids and imprisonment which would only drive the activity further underground.