Sat, Jan 21, 2006 - Page 2 News List

Human trafficking growing worse


Crammed into a rectangular prison cell, more than 100 women sit listlessly behind bars awaiting an uncertain future.

Dressed in identical red T-shirts and blue shorts, these inmates are not petty criminals but the victims of a surging trade in human trafficking across the 270km stretch of water that separates Taiwan from China.

The women, some as young as 16, are either lured or persuaded to come to Taiwan in search of manual jobs. Others are kidnapped and forced to make the journey by human traffickers.

But dreams of riches often fail to materialize as the gangs of smugglers, often known as snakeheads, force many migrants into a life of prostitution.

It's what Little Wang, as she calls herself, had to endure for 6 months before being picked up by the police in Kaohsiung.

At only 17, a family friend persuaded her that Taiwan had plenty of need for girls to work in factories, with the pay and living conditions significantly better than those back home.

She was introduced to a broker and paid him US$500, a sum borrowed from family and friends, and was shipped over on a fishing boat during the night.

But as soon as she stepped off the boat her ordeal began. Little Wang and eight other girls were taken to a house and told they would have to work as prostitutes.

"I was trembling with fear and had no way to escape," she said while crying.

"At first I didn't want to do it, so they locked me in a room and told me I would stay in there for ever unless I did what they said," she added.

After about six months she got pregnant, a mixed blessing for her.

The brothel chief kicked her out onto the streets with no money, but soon a police car picked her up and eventually she was taken to the Hsinchu detention center.

The former military and police-training camp now acts as a holding place for women who share similar stories and the same fate.

More than 1,000 inmates are now packed into Hsinchu Detention Center for illegal Chinese migrants, 80km south of Taipei.

"The scale of human trafficking in Taiwan is expanding according to several studies and that Taiwan has become an important hub in international human trafficking," said Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), a Democratic Progressive Party legislator.

The inmates are not sent back to China immediately. Most languish for a minimum of 6 months in Hsinchu or one of the other two detention centers around Taiwan, because Chinese authorities are reluctant to take them back. Some have been waiting for more than a year.

This often causes the number of prisoners to stack up putting pressure on the authorities to look after their well-being.

The detention center had an original capacity of 840 inmates, but the scale of trafficking has reached such proportions that it now regularly has to accommodate 1,250.

The large numbers make it difficult for police, so women are often locked in for most of the day, many with small children: a by-product of their lives as prostitutes.

Thousands of Chinese from rural parts of the country try to enter Taiwan illegally every year, looking for work and better economic prospects.

Most are smuggled by boat from Fujian Province and pay brokers between US$400 and US$1,500.

Statistics from the Ministry of the Interior show that Taiwanese police intercepted 8,164 illegal immigrants from 2001 to the end of last year.

Of the 5,097 women arrested, 44 percent were engaged in prostitution. Hsiao says a review by the US State Department late last year said Taiwan's efforts to eliminate human trafficking were "unsatisfactory."

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