Tue, Jan 13, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Prostitutes drift to Marshall Islands

SEX TRADE Some Chinese women travel circuitous routes via Fiji and Kiribati to practice the world's oldest profession on fishing vessels that visit the Pacific islands

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER , IN MAJURO, MARSHALL ISLANDS

Chinese prostitutes who began coming to the Marshall Islands about five years ago ply their trade primarily on fishing vessels anchored in the country's lagoons, according to the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority. The women's primary customers are foreign seamen, said Kirtley Pinho, chairman of the semi-official visitors authority.

Prostitution, he said, is not part of the culture of the mostly Roman Catholic and Presbyterian people of the Marshall Islands.

"Local men don't go to these Chinese women," Pinho said, "because they don't want to run into problems with their wives."

According to Chen Lien-gene (陳連軍), Taiwan's ambassador to the Marshall Islands, the latest official count of illegal Chinese immigrants in the islands is 298, the majority of them women. According to Pinho, however, the number of Chinese prostitutes in the Marshall Islands is difficult to calculate.

Local government officials said the Chinese prostitutes usually fly from China to the Marshall Islands via Fiji and Kiribati.

"They avoid going through Guam because they need US visas to do so. Getting US visas is very difficult for Chinese citizens," Chen said.

After the women arrive, most of them work as prostitutes on foreign fishing ships. "Knowing the number of Chinese prostitutes we have," Pinho said, "involves knowing how many fishing ships we have in the lagoons."

The Marshall Islands do not otherwise have brothels. The Chinese prostitutes make their own business arrangements with the foreign seamen.

"Only the high-ranking seamen such as captains can afford to go to these Chinese prostitutes," Chen said. "Ordinary seamen's earnings are too low for them to go to these women."

Seamen from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are the most frequent visitors to the Chinese prostitutes, Chen said.

Pinho said the Marshall Islands will not negotiate with China about the prostitution problem. "We have to take care of the problem on our own," he said, adding that some people in the Marshall Islands approve of the women's being there because they bring in money.

The Marshall Islands recently passed legislation on prostitution, Pinho said, but the country needs to tighten up its immigration laws and visa-issuing procedures in order to curb the flow of illegal Chinese immigrants.

Because the Marshall Islands does not issue work permits to the Chinese women, the women can only enter the country with visitors' visas.

Another immigration problem the Marshall Islands faces, Chen said, is that because the country has very few foreign consulates, it cannot issue many visas to foreigners.

"The Marshall Islands allows people to enter the country as long as they have return tickets and valid passports," Chen said.

After the Chinese women arrive, Chen said, they usually seek refunds for the return portion of their tickets, so if they are arrested they have no ticket home. According to Chen, it is difficult for the Marshall Islands to send home women who have no tickets because buying plane tickets for them would be expensive.

Pinho, however, is confident that the prostitution situation is improving. "The problem is that everybody knows everybody here," Pinho said. "I don't like to talk about the kickbacks that people here get from these prostitutes."

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