Listen to the Voices of Victims of Sex Trafficking

Meeting migrant women who are trafficked, sexually exploited in South Korea

Joyce | 기사입력 2020/08/07 [22:00]

Listen to the Voices of Victims of Sex Trafficking

Meeting migrant women who are trafficked, sexually exploited in South Korea

Joyce | 입력 : 2020/08/07 [22:00]

I work at a center that is located in what is referred to as a camptown, a neighborhood that surrounds a U.S. military base and caters to the U.S. servicemen of the base.


In camptowns there are foreigner-only bars and clubs that are owned and operated by Korean nationals who hire migrant women to entertain customers – U.S. soldiers, other foreigners, and, as business wavers, Korean customers. There are also migrant women who are sent to work in Korean clubs, other adult entertainment establishments, massage parlors, and makeshift brothels across the country. The trafficking of migrant women for purposes of sexual exploitation is widespread in South Korea, and a significant number of migrant women in camptowns and other establishments nationwide are victims of trafficking who have been deceived, partially deceived, or even forced into working in the sex industry.


One of the center’s objectives is to provide assistance to Korean and migrant women who face or have faced sexual and labor exploitation, and my work at the center is focused mainly on assisting migrant women who experience problems while living and working in the camptowns. Sexual and/or labor exploitation, immigration status, health issues, and concerns regarding children and single motherhood are among the problems that commonly surface.


I believe we must work toward our objective by providing women with the services and resources that they need and by helping them to access spaces that feel physically and emotionally safe. Having access to services, resources, safe space, and time would allow survivors to work through their trauma and, if they choose, to seek justice so that ultimately they can find safe working opportunities in South Korea during or after their recovery.


Working toward this objective is difficult because working on issues of gender-based violence and inequality is challenging to say the least. Such challenges aside, however, I have often become frustrated by huge limitations and problems we face in this field of work.


▲ The workers in businesses that specialize in serving foreigners are migrant women on E-6-2 visas. The customers are mainly American military personnel, but other foreign workers and Korean men also visit these clubs.  ©Joyce

Migrant women victims are deported instead of being protected


One problem that I have noticed while working at the center is the weakness of identifying victims and survivors at the government organization (GO) level.


We have seen cases where migrant women were sent to immigration detention centers and soon thereafter simply deported without being provided information and resources. Among those cases, one migrant woman even requested to speak with a human rights counselor but instead got deported shortly afterward. The woman’s deportation led to great complications in taking legal action against those who exploited and abused her, and she ultimately decided not to pursue prosecution. Moreover, we have also heard, through other clients, of situations in which migrant women reported their club owner for exploitation but, similarly, got deported after the police raided the establishment.


Government organization employees, therefore, may be the first to have contact with a migrant woman reaching out for assistance. However, they are not appropriately identifying victims and need more training and education on issues of trafficking and gender-based violence.


In the two situations above, I question why these women were deported without referral to an appropriate NGO or counseling center. If GO units could properly identify victims of exploitation and trafficking and refer them to NGOs for further counseling, there would be more survivors who access the means to recover and seek justice.


The “4 Ps” – protection, prosecution, prevention, partnership – widely discussed in trafficking survivor support methods were not achieved at all.


In the cases above, the migrant women were detained, criminalized, blacklisted, and deported. Here, only the “3 Ds” of victim mis-protection – detention, deportation, disempowerment – were applied.


Why it is strikingly difficult to report, prosecute sex trafficking


The second serious problem in survivor support is the failure to prosecute, convict, and adequately punish. In too many cases perpetrators slip away unscathed because of a lack of evidence. Testimony from the migrant women themselves and co-worker witnesses do not suffice, yet women typically do not have enough evidence to satisfy the courts.


South Korea has continued to receive a Tier 1 rating, the best possible rating, since the 2002 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report and also last year ratified the Palermo Protocol to prevent, suppress, and punish human trafficking. Still, however, South Korea has painfully low prosecution and conviction rates.


Perpetrators who are caught and punished, further, can often get away with paying fines before continuing on with their businesses of exploiting women. The Labor Board, for example, can order a club owner or promoter to pay employees their withheld wages, yet who would opt to pay those wages back when they can simply pay a cheaper penalty instead?


▲ A sign hanging in a business that sells sex to foreigners. Despite its promise, when migrant women workers leave this kind of business, their lives become difficult and dangerous, especially if they are unregistered.  ©Joyce

Temporary visas should be issued to migrant women who escape from sexual exploitation


The third serious problem falls in the category of protection, one of the “4 Ps.” An overwhelming majority of migrant women who have come to the center for assistance are women who decided to leave their workplaces because of some form of sexual and labor exploitation and/or declining health. For E-6 entertainment visa holders who work at clubs, there are few options. Women who do not want to perform sexualized labor at the club can either follow orders against their will or refuse and consequently mistreated – harassment, verbal abuse, reduced paycheck, or “lock down,” meaning they cannot leave the house outside of work hours, etc. The other option is to leave.


By leaving their places of work, however, migrant women face safety risks, and in many cases their family members in their home countries also may be put in a dangerous situation. In South Korea a woman’s club owner, promoter, boss, and their friends and business partners will likely search for her, and the recruiters in the home country will be alerted and begin to harass or threaten the woman’s family members.


By leaving the club, E-6 entertainment visa holders also lose their visa status in South Korea. Without a visa, a migrant woman has no right to reside or work in Korea and must hide from not only their former club owners but also immigration authorities. Having to hide on a daily basis can make a person feel highly insecure and raise anxiety levels, taking a toll on one’s mental and physical health.


While there currently is a “miscellaneous visa” that survivors of trafficking can obtain, it can be obtained only by undergoing the legal process of seeking prosecution. That is, the visa is only available to one who has filed a lawsuit. While our center provides legal services so that clients may take legal action against their traffickers, we know that pursuing a lawsuit can be a lengthy, re-traumatizing experience for clients.


Instead there needs to be a new temporary visa system available to all migrant women who run away from the sexually exploitative working conditions that their managers and club owners – with the approval of South Korean governmental organizations – subject them to. The temporary visa would allow migrant women time to recover from their harmful experiences and also work. For those such as E-6 visa holders who have entered South Korea on a working visa, the temporary visa should allow them to work for at least two years, the maximum amount of time an E-6 visa is valid, and the work period should start after the initial recovery process has begun and the survivor feels read to start working.


Lack of migrant women’s protection in the form of temporary visa status is highly limiting for both survivors and service providers. If a temporary visa system is not available to migrant woman survivors, they cannot reach out for assistance and NGO and GO-run victim-survivor service and protection programs simply cannot function to their fullest. It is impossible to recover and live a safe, healthful life as an undocumented migrant in South Korea.


The lack of rehabilitation, employment programs with interpretation and psychological counseling services


The last large limitation lies in what is commonly referred to in the anti-trafficking field as rehabilitation and reintegration. South Korean social welfare should create programs that assist migrant women survivors of trafficking to recover from trauma and enter Korean society, even if it is for a temporary period. However, South Korea does not yet have recovery programs for migrant women who are dealing with the aftermath of sexual and labor exploitation.


▲ A foreigner-only business in a military camptown.  ©Feminist Journal Ilda

It is difficult to access multi-lingual and multi-cultural direct psychological counseling that can assist migrant women work through the emotional and psychological effects of their trauma. Likewise, there are no employment training or placement programs that migrant women can rely on to find work, which many migrant women must prioritize over their own health and safety. The creation of a temporary visa system and development of job training and placement would need to go hand in hand.


The center is always making efforts to encourage migrant women to tell their own stories, listen to and advocate for migrant women, create programs that can ultimately facilitate the building of community, and encourage conscious dialogue. This work, I personally believe, is our center’s most important, valuable, and difficult work.


However, I also recognize our work on the ground cannot be successful because systematic and policy changes need to occur in order to address the huge obstacles I mention above. The specific details and examples of the obstacles surrounding the failure to identify, prosecute, and protect and the inability to assist with meaningful rehabilitation and reintegration are endless.


The government should take an interest in the lives of survivors of trafficking


It is clear that there needs to be a much higher level of cooperation among survivors and NGOs, and GOs in South Korea. Much of the time, however, it seems GOs are not interested in listening to survivors and NGOs working on the ground, and in many cases it is clear everyone has different perspectives.


I once recently participated in conference on enhancing victim-centered approaches to trafficking, and one GO official from another country asked me why our center does not forward perpetrator names as intelligence and does not report undocumented migrant women to immigration authorities. It is very simple. We do not ever take any action that has the potential to harm clients.


Despite the daunting work and dialogue that needs to continue to be done, my hope is that those involved in anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation work at the NGO and GO levels keep survivors at the center of all discussion, action, and change.


By Joyce

Published: December 11, 2016 

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