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Trafficked young people face lasting trauma

9 October 20150 comments
Victims of child traffisking Image : Phnom Penh Post

Victims of child trafficking Image : Phnom Penh Post

New research has found children and young people exploited by traffickers in Southeast Asia face lasting effects on their mental health even if they escape or are rescued.

A team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has investigated the psychological effects on children of trafficking in the region and the results are grim.

“We were shocked by the numbers,” said LSHTM team leader Ligia Kiss.

The study titled, ‘Exploitation, Violence, and Suicide Risk Among Child and Adolescent Survivors of Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Subregion’ is the first ever detailed quantitative look at the long-term effects of people trafficking on children and adolescents.

More than half of the 387 people interviewed showed symptoms of depression and 12% reported that they had tried to harm or kill themselves in the month before the interview, the study found.

It also found nearly 16% reported suicidal thoughts.

The study was based on interviews with people who had recently arrived at institutions set up to help people freed or escaped from trafficking in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Some had been brought in by border guards after being intercepted on the way to their destination, others were referred by police or other officials. The oldest was 17 and the youngest just 10 years old.

Southeast Asia has a network of government and NGO-run shelters and transit centres that work with the International Organization for Migration to look after the young victims and reunite them with their families.

“There was so little data on people who had been trafficked. We didn’t have a good sense of what kind of experiences they underwent or the consequences that they were facing, especially in terms of their mental health,” Ms Kiss said.

The research found that many trafficked children were also physically as well as mentally scarred, as a result of physical or sexual violence by their traffickers or employers, or occupational injuries.

While a majority of the girls had been forced into sex work or were being sent to China as “brides”, boys were used as beggars or on fishing boats. Others ended up doing domestic or factory work in poor conditions.

A third of those interviewed had suffered violence during trafficking and 23% of those reported serious injuries. 21% of the boys had been injured while working, reporting such things as bad burns, head and back injuries and broken bones.

The report said excessively long working hours were common, sometimes without any rest days, and some of the children were kept locked up, had no proper place to sleep or were denied food or water.

The report says that the people interviewed were enterprising youngsters who had mostly gone with the traffickers in the expectation of a better life. Although a small number reported having been abducted, most had set out voluntarily on the journey.

About 64% said they had left home for economic reasons and 24% reported they were looking for new experience. 8% said they had left because of violence or drunkenness at home.

Although only 8% cited it as their main reason for leaving, 22% of those interviewed had already suffered physical or sexual violence before they were trafficked.

Just over half said they were worried about how they would be treated when they returned home, a similar number said they felt shame or guilt, and a third were still fearful of their traffickers.

Chhan Sokunthea, head of the Women and Children’s Rights section at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, ADHOC, works closely with repatriated trafficking victims and has witnessed first-hand the impact of such experiences as well as the fallout for families.

“They feel disappointed because when they want to work abroad, they want to do so to improve their livelihood,” said Chhan Sokunthea, head of the Women and Children’s Rights section at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association.

“Instead, they go to Malaysia or Thailand; they don’t get a full salary or any salary. They are abused by their boss. Some of the victims have mental health problems… the families spend all their money to cure them, making them poorer and poorer,” she said.

The LSHTM report found a lack of mental health services in the region.

It found dedicated staff who were working hard to respond to the needs of the trafficking victims, but who didn’t feel equipped to deal with the depth of mental health issues.

Thailand, where most trafficked children end up, and where they first come into the care of post-trafficking organisations, has slightly more options for referral, but there is still a shortage of specialised mental health provision.

The lack is greater still in the poorer neighbouring countries to where some of the children are returned.

The research cast doubt on the notion that returning these youngsters to their families was the right solution for them.

“They are getting sent back to the same situation they left in the first place,” said Ms Kiss.

“Other research and the experience of the service providers show that a lot will migrate again. They may perhaps have more information now to help them avoid some of the traps, but they will still face the same risks as in the past,” she said.


Skye Doyle
AMES Australia Staff Writer