- - Sunday, March 27, 2016

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Fighting back the tears, Yorn Srea is struggling to control her emotions. In dire need to pay off a family debt, she accepted an employment offer by a broker to work as a domestic helper in Malaysia only to find herself trapped as a family slave and shared by four households.

She arrived from Cambodia with her 18-year-old daughter. They were supposed to work together but, like the rest of the contract, that was a lie. Mother and daughter were sent to different families.

Thousands of such stories blight East Asia, stories made familiar by well-meaning nongovernmental organizations and charities and a glittery cast of A-list Hollywood celebrities — including Angelina Jolie, Susan Sarandon and Minnie Driver — that have pushed their cause. But despite the star power and sometimes fawning media coverage, there are mounting questions about the transparency and effectiveness of some of the organizations purporting to help Ms. Srea and others.

In Malaysia, an eight-hour day turned into 14 and Ms. Srea was ordered to clean the houses of her employer’s mother, brother and sister. Her broker, who was eventually imprisoned, robbed Ms. Srea of her meager savings, and she was rescued only after her father made a fuss with authorities.

“I still haven’t heard from my daughter in five months. I just want to find her and bring her back to Cambodia,” she said in a hot and dusty union office in a dilapidated suburb of Phnom Penh.

Hers is by no means an isolated case.

In Hong Kong, a study released this month by the Justice Center, which focuses on the plight of locally trafficked people, found an astonishing 50,000 domestic workers — one in six — had been forced into servitude.

The report casts heavy doubt on the prevailing myth that their plight has improved in recent years. It also calls into question the legislative reforms and efforts by enforcement agencies to end the scourge.*

“Current regulations can actually increase the vulnerability of workers to exploitation, and victims face very real barriers in seeking assistance and justice,” said Piya Muqit, executive director of the Justice Center.

Hong Kong has a better reputation than most others for the treatment of foreign maids, suggesting the numbers are even worse elsewhere in the region.

Malaysia and Singapore, where domestic help has emerged as a middle-class status symbol, face constant criticism for their treatment of maids from authorities in the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia about poor living conditions, minimal vacation and paltry wages.

Press-ganging into the Thai fishing industry or onto Malaysian rubber and palm oil plantations has proved equally worrisome, and the trafficking of girls into the sex industry is probably the most egregious example of the dreadful business.

The International Labor Organization estimates that 21 million people are trafficked annually.

Roles of NGOs

Private nongovernmental organizations have taken up much of the work of highlighting and fighting the scourge. Seeking attention and funding, many have jumped onto the celebrity bandwagon since 1997, when Britain’s Princess Diana became a torchbearer for land mine victims during her famous visit to Angola.

Many of the NGOs — like the governments and law enforcement agencies they seek to replace — are susceptible to corruption and abuse. In Cambodia and other countries, the game warden has too often emerged as the poacher.

In December, Hang Vibol, former director of the Phnom Penh orphanage Action for the Children, was imprisoned for three years for committing indecent acts against children under his care.

In the 1990s, Vibol was linked to the prosecution of a former Australian ambassador who faced child sex charges at home for suspected crimes in Cambodia. The charges were dropped after the victims admitted they made up stories in exchange for money, but the ambassador’s reputation was ruined.

Despite his checkered past, Vibol became director of Action for the Children, a Phnom Penh NGO, setting up another round of abuse.

Then there was the case of Somaly Mam, a Cambodian anti-trafficking activist whose fall from grace in 2014 also made headlines — and made her list of glitterati supporters look stupid.

She was forced to resign as president of the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2014 after press reports revealed she had fabricated her background and coached girls to lie about their childhoods to grab headlines and raise money.

Cambodia has banned Ms. Mam from starting any more organizations.

Despite this, Ms. Mam returned to the fundraising trail last year, and some of her Hollywood backers were standing by her despite the revelations. This month, actress Daryl Hannah described Ms. Mam as a heroine, arguing in a newspaper interview that the disgraced advocate “helps girls out of slavery.” Miss Hannah compared Ms. Mam to such figures as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Modern-day slavery

The Justice Center issued its findings shortly after the U.N. Committee Against Torture urged Hong Kong authorities to reform laws designed to protect victims of forced labor and trafficking.

It also coincided with a trial of 92 suspects, including a general, in a human trafficking case in Thailand involving the deaths of dozens of people whose bodies were found in shallow graves along the Malaysian border.

Human trafficking takes on many guises. It involves holding people in exploitable situations, often for profit. Men, women and children are commonly conned into believing they are heading to other countries for well-paid jobs or, in some cases, husbands.

Sydney, Australia-based human rights lawyer Melissa Stewart said there was a significant blurring of the edges over what in fact constitutes human trafficking.

While many Southeast Asian nations have been adopting standard definitions set under international law and common practice, “at the ground level, there is still a long way to go to ensure all victims are being identified and securing justice,” Ms. Stewart said.

“More often than not, the small fish in the trafficking chain are the ones prosecuted and not the actual end exploiters — the ones actually making the biggest profits,” she said.

In some countries, definitions of human trafficking are still restricted to sexual exploitation of women and children, while others target only forced labor. Sometimes officials struggle to distinguish between human trafficking and people smuggling.

“Most cases are about vulnerable people trying to make a better life for themselves or their kids and end up being tricked or coerced into a really bad work situation,” she said.

Celebrity endorsements and Western charity funds have not always been deployed with maximum efficiency, including a troubled effort to quantify the size of the problem. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest backed the Global Slavery Index, an effort also endorsed by familiar international names: Blair, Bono, Branson and Clinton.

The index, the flagship of the Walk Free Foundation, was intended to rank countries on their efforts to combat trafficking.

Instead, it has faced persistent questions over its methodology. Critics say it leads to misinformation and a diversion of funds from countries and regions with the biggest needs.

The clout of the celebrities who join these efforts can prove a double-edged sword, diverting funds and energy to causes and groups because of their popularity and not their effectiveness on the ground.

“It’s not new for a celebrity to pick a cause de jour,” Ms. Stewart said. “They may go in with very good intentions but can also be incredibly naive — and even willfully blind. Responding effectively to trafficking is not about quick wins.”

Beyond the celebrity

In the outer suburb of Phnom Penh, the plainly dressed Ms. Srea gathers her composure and cuddles her youngest son. She is comforted by Yim Sothy, president of the Cambodian Domestic Worker Network, who has been working with her.

“It’s good that people want to help, but the situation in Cambodia is [that] there is too much corruption. These celebrities need to think about this and too often they don’t,” Ms. Sothy said. “Otherwise, I just feel it’s another kind of abuse of women’s rights. It’s cheating and exploitation.”

Ms. Srea listened intently through a translator as Ms. Sothy and a reporter talked. Asked whether the Western celebrities who have adopted her cause had helped ease the plight of trafficked Cambodians, she looked at her son and simply said, “I’ve never heard of Daryl Hannah. I just want my daughter back.”


*An earlier version of this story incorrectly summarized parts of the report. The story has been updated.

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