Mon, Mar 06, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Forced smiles mask pain of Hong Kong’s trafficked bar girls

Rights activists say that hundreds of women have been trafficked to Hong Kong from mainland China, Southeast Asia, Europe and South America for forced prostitution in the city’s brothels, bars, spas and pornography industry

By Sylvia Yu  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, HONG KONG

Ex-prostitute “Beauty” (a pseudonym), poses in a social support centre for trafficked girls last year.

Photo: REUTERS/Tom Esslemont

As she smiles at customers and makes small talk with regulars in a Hong Kong bar, Kat’s every move is being watched by an older woman, a pimp who answers to the name “Mama-san.”

The 23-year-old from the Philippines has been forced to sell sex for Mama-san and her organized crime network since December when she was moved to Hong Kong under a recruiter’s promise of a well-paying job and easy working conditions.

A single mother, whose own mother is too sick to work, Kat jumped at the chance to earn a high salary but soon after arriving in Hong Kong, Mama-san confiscated her passport and sent her to work in the bar alongside other trafficked women.

Clients pay up to 5,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$650) to have sex with Kat but payment goes directly to her pimp. Without any money, she said she cannot escape or fly home — and besides, her traffickers know where her family lives.

“I’m depressed. The other bar girls are depressed. They have to force themselves to be happy and make jokes,” said Kat, sobbing. “The Chinese bar owner gets angry with me because I look so sad.”

Kat, who declined to give her real name, is one of hundreds of women who are trafficked to Hong Kong from mainland China, Southeast Asia, Europe and South America for forced prostitution in the city’s brothels, bars, spas and pornography industry, rights activists say.

Many victims do not speak out for fear of being punished by their traffickers, some of them linked to the powerful Triad organized crime group. Others are afraid of being deported home or criminalized for being in the possession of fake papers arranged by their pimps, campaigners say.

“I take a risk every time I go out with a male customer,” said Kat, who also shudders at the parties she is made to attend where cocaine, marijuana and other drugs are used by clients and forced on the girls.

“They are great actresses because like one of them said, ‘I need to show that I am happy and OK even when I am not.’ This to me kills a soul,” said Marcela Santos, an advocate for trafficking victims who did not want to give her real name, saying it may put at risk her work helping survivors with jobs, training and sometimes a flight home.

IDENTIFYING VICTIMS

Last year, the US State Department downgraded Hong Kong in its annual Trafficking in Persons report to its Tier 2 Watch List, just one rank above countries like North Korea.

The report criticized Hong Kong for not doing more to identify victims of sex and labor trafficking among vulnerable groups such as foreign migrants, domestic workers and women and children in prostitution.

In 2016, the police identified a total of 16 trafficking victims who were foreign women forced into prostitution.

Hong Kong’s Security Bureau, in charge of law and order as well as immigration, said the police officers had been provided with regular training on identifying victims of human trafficking.

Recognizing the need for more training, the Immigration Department and Hong Kong Police Force introduced new and revised procedures for identifying potential trafficking victims including a checklist for danger signs.

The list of vulnerable trafficking victims has also been expanded to sex workers, illegal workers and illegal immigrants.

“It’s often challenging for law enforcement personnel and service providers to identify potential victims. In most situations, victims cannot escape from the traffickers,” said Nurul Qoiriah, head of the Sub-Office of the UN International Organization for Migration in Hong Kong.

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