As I landed in Asia after a nearly 24-hour flight from the United States earlier this week I could only think of one thing. Where are the sex signs? I had been invited to travel with a group called The Exodus Road whose mission it is to rescue children from sex trafficking with a major focus centering in Asia.
When you arrive at the Las Vegas International Airport it is obvious that no one is hiding the fact that sex sells and Vegas has plenty to offer. Amsterdam is similar. Landing at the airports in major cities in SE Asia in countries like Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, or Vietnam a traveler can be totally unaware of a dark secret sometimes operating in the very hotel they will soon be staying in. They would have a hard time knowing that there is a shiny veneer covering a thriving sex industry. And beyond that veneer is the darkest of all, the trafficking of children for sex.
What is it about these cultures that keep such a secret discrete even in the face of international pressures to address the issue? While the awareness of this crime has entered the world stage through the efforts of NGOs and government campaigns, sex tourism still stands as a major economic giant. Most of these countries have passed legislation outlawing human trafficking, Myanmar joining them as late as 2005.
According to the International Labour Organization four Asian countries depend on the sex industry for 2 percent to as high as 14 percent of their economies. UNICEF reports in The State of the Worlds Children 2012, that out of the 2.5 million people trafficked in the world it is estimated that 22-50 percent of them are children. Of those trafficked some studies show that most trafficked underage women are used in the sex industry. The UNODC's report: Global report on trafficking in persons 2012 states that much of that activity happens in SE Asia.
So the question remains if these societies will be able to continue hiding those realities. The world is starting to wake up to the facts. No longer is it only the pedophile who knows about the dark profitable places to seek out a child. Just this past week at a major gathering of college christian students called Passion, 60,000 students pledged to help end human trafficking. Coalitions are being formed all the time and groups are beginning to work together from the aggravating work of finding these victims to prosecuting their handlers. Facades can only mask so long what seems to embarrass a culture of honor.
I remember flying into Beijing for the first time right before the commencement of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The government went to great lengths to position everything from signs, reducing traffic induced smoggy skies, and other details to whitewash anything but the best of the city and surrounding scenery. Returning this last summer though, many of these measures had been removed. The city was still a symbol of power, but a truer Beijing was now visible, even with its least pleasant characteristics.
If these less honorable, and even worse, criminal activities against children become known stories then there will be a reduction in the places for them to hide and carry out the activity. Over the next week, as I travel throughout the region, I will be publishing first hand accounts of the people I meet. Some will be industry workers who have witnessed underage trafficking. Others will be investigators, case managers and aftercare professionals from various coalitions. I hope that their lives begin to paint yet another picture of the greater story being told by many, one that is creating an army of people who will not look the other way, one that finds honor only in dignity for all humans beings. While many people have said wise things in regards to slavery, these words from William Wilberforce's quote in his address to the British Parliament in 1789 stand hauntingly appropriate for our world today. "Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know."
Follow John Bergquist on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnflurry