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The Role of the Travel Industry in Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking

Sex tourism and trafficking remain prevalent issues in the travel industry. Within the thriving sex industry, women and girls – and young men and boys – are trafficked due to a boom in tourism and cheap flights to countries such as Cambodia and South Africa.

In 2016, there are an estimated 45.8 million people in some form of modern slavery in 167 countries, according to The Global Slavery Index. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 4.5 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.

It’s clear, then, that the travel industry needs to do more to tackle the issue of slavery – whether that results in the exploitation of employees or through the commercial sexual exploitation that may occur on their premises.

Cambodia Remains a Renowned Sex Tourism Destination

In the 1990s, Cambodia was a popular country for sex predators to engage in sexual exploitation and trafficking, and this legacy remains today. According to The Global Slavery Index, there are around 256,800 people or 1.6 percent of the total population living in conditions of modern slavery in Cambodia.

Speaking to Ethical Traveler, Katharine Bryant, Walk Free Foundation’s Research Manager, said that while efforts have been made to curb commercial sexual exploitation, the industry is being pushed underground. Sex offenders are reportedly purchasing sex with children through an intermediary, rather than more overtly in brothels.

“The recent increase in ‘orphanage tourism’ has also led to situations where children in institutions and orphanages are exposed to exploitation by tourists,” Bryant said.

Consequently, the impact on the travel industry is like other countries where sex tourism occurs: loss of business, risk of being associated with traffickers, and criminal prosecution when an individual knowingly receives or harbours an individual who will be subject to commercial sexual exploitation.

One, however, must not forget that while women and girls are often targeted, so too are young men and boys. In 2011, Glenn Miles and Heather Blanch wrote a paper, ‘What About Boys? An Initial Exploration of Sexually Exploited Boys in Cambodia’, which found that boys and young men are vulnerable to sexual exploitation with a lack of skills and job training being contributing factors as many of them enter the massage industry.

Cambodia is a low-income country with high levels of poverty and a relatively young population – the World Bank estimates that 40 percent of the population live on less than USD $2 per day, and 80 percent of the country’s population resides in rural locations with few employment opportunities. It is therefore not surprising that young and vulnerable individuals are moving towards the cities. Unfortunately, limited education or awareness puts many at risk of human trafficking.

“These circumstances, when coupled with the recent boom in tourism [to Cambodia] to more than 4.5 million visitors in 2014, places children and adults at risk of sex tourism,” Bryant said.

“Men from Cambodia, other Asian nations, the USA, Australia, South Africa, and Europe continue to engage in sex tourism in Cambodia.”

The Cambodian government has made some progress in combating human trafficking by releasing a five-year National Plan of Action devised by the National Committee for Counter Trafficking in 2014. However, according to Bryant, the government lacks the resources and coordination mechanisms to prevent commercial sexual exploitation from going further underground.

“As a result, the victim response and support network in Cambodia relies heavily on NGOs who provide services and use methods based on their particular mandates and capacities,” Bryant said.

“This creates a patchwork of interventions and means that some victims in Cambodia do not receive adequate services.”

Not only that, but significant discrimination against girls and women persists, with traditional gender roles championed at school. A 2015 article highlights Chbab Srey, a customary code, that is still being taught in schools educating girls on what women should say and do to honour and serve their husband, and to not draw attention to themselves.

Bryant states that these rules have implications for female victims of trafficking.

“Ideas of subservience to men and shame for their conduct often restrict victims from coming forward to report abuse, and societal stigma challenges successful reintegration of victims,” said Bryant.

South Africa is a Hub for Sexual Exploitation

The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates that 248,700 people or 0.45 percent of the total population are living in conditions of modern slavery in South Africa.

According to Bryant, South Africa is prevalent for modern day slavery and sex trafficking because of the legacy of apartheid, high levels of crime, and widespread discrimination against women. Last year, the Equal Times looked at how unskilled workers were being funnelled into low pay work that, until recently, didn’t have a minimum wage.

“Economic necessity is the key driver of women accepting domestic work, despite reports of withholding of wages, unpaid overtime, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse,” Bryant said.

A 2015 Walk Free Foundation survey found that of the more than 200,000 victims in forced labor in South Africa, 43 percent are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation. Consequently, South Africa provides an ideal travel location for offenders to exploit women from South Africa, neighboring African nations, Thailand, China, Russia and Brazil.

“While the purchase of sex is criminalized, the sex industry occurs on the streets and in brothels and private residences,” Bryant said.

“There are reports that South Africa is a hub for sex tourism and traveling sex offenders [with] big sporting events, such as the 2010 World Cup, increasing these levels of vulnerability.”

The South African government is taking steps to tackle modern slavery.

On 9 August 2015, President Zuma declared that the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act would come into force providing much needed clarity around modern slavery crimes in the sex industry. Last year, a 62-year-old businessman was handed down eight life sentences for trafficking of Mozambican girls between the ages of 11 and 17 for sexual exploitation.

Prior to August 2015, cases of trafficking have been brought under other acts such as the Sexual Offences Amendment Act or the Children’s Amendment Act, where traffickers were charged for trafficking in people, but were also charged with kidnapping and rape.

Bryant, however, believes that there are ongoing concerns that victims are still not being fully protected.

“International and local organizations are working with victims of commercial sexual exploitation to report instances where victims are criminalized for illegal conduct such as prostitution rather than being identified and assisted as victims of trafficking,” she said.

What can we do?

Both Cambodia and South Africa need to do more to help protect vulnerable people from sexual exploitation. As a severe abuse of human rights, all businesses have a moral responsibility to ensure their businesses are slavery free; this extends to the travel industry.

Tourists, too, have an ethical duty when visiting countries. One way they can ensure this is to report anything suspicious to the authorities and NGOs in the area. For travelers to any country where sex tourism takes place, awareness of the situation is paramount. When traveling to countries such as Cambodia or South Africa, ensure that you avoid places where sex tourism may be taking place. By doing so you are helping to reduce the sex trafficking trade, which in turn will help to limit the impact it has on a country as more tourists follow suit.

Ask the hotel you are staying with or travel agent that you are booking through if they have signed “The Code” (The Tourism Child Protection Code of Conduct). If not, suggest that they do! Signatories commit themselves to implementing the following measures in order to pro-actively protect children from commercial sexual exploitation:

  1. Establish a policy and procedures against sexual exploitation of children;
  2. Train employees in children’s rights, the prevention of sexual exploitation and how to report suspected cases;
  3. Include a clause in contracts throughout the value chain stating a common repudiation and zero tolerance policy of sexual exploitation of children;
  4. Provide information to travellers on children’s rights, the prevention of the sexual exploitation of children and how to report suspected cases;
  5. Support, collaborate and engage stakeholders in the prevention of sexual exploitation of children; and
  6. Report annually on their implementation of Code related activities.

A list of current signatories is available on The’s website.

In South Africa, the local representative for The Code is Fair Trade Tourism (FTT). All of the businesses certified by FTT are aware of The Code and even if they haven’t yet signed it, they are required to have certain measures in place to ensure that children are protected, so choosing one of those is also a good option.

You might also choose to dine at restaurants that support StreetSmart South Africa – an initiative that has since 2005 been supporting the re-integration of street children and children at risk into society. These children are often at greatest risk of exploitation through child sex tourism so the work of initiatives such as StreetSmart South Africa address the underlying causes that put them there.

An app developed by the social action organization Exchange Initiative and researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, TraffickCam allows people with smartphones to help combat sex trafficking by uploading photos of their hotel room to a huge database of hotel room images. TraffickCam, whose database currently contains more than 1.5 million photos from more than 145,000 hotels across the United States, also enables law enforcement agencies to securely submit photos of sex trafficking victims posing in hotel rooms.

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