Life in the shadows

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2007, 12:00am

Every day, MTV commands the rapt attention of millions of young Asians with a steady diet of airbrushed boy bands, raunchy hip hop videos and chirping cellphone adverts. It's a fast-moving juggernaut of global pop culture tweaked to local tastes and languages.

Starting this month, though, MTV viewers in Asia will see a different slice of life on their screens. Traffic is a gritty, troubling documentary that lays bare the horrors of human trafficking through the true stories of three young victims. The 24-minute film explores how traffickers operate, who benefits and how to get involved in curbing what it calls modern-day slavery. Using flickering camerawork, jump cuts and grainy re-enactments, Traffic is clearly pitched to the MTV generation.

The film, which premiered in Thailand on Tuesday, is part of a US government-funded effort to tackle trafficking in the Asia-Pacific region. Called Exit (End Exploitation and Trafficking), the campaign includes public service spots, Korean anime shorts and a multilingual website. Sold, a separate documentary shot in South Asia, will be aired in that region.

Traffic is being dubbed into eight languages by Asian celebrities who have agreed to front national campaigns. Hong Kong actress and singer Karen Mok Man-wai will be the public face for MTV China, with a launch party taking place in Beijing on Friday. In South Korea, pop icon Rain will be lending his celebrity status to the campaign.

By combining this star power with a hard-hitting message, organisers hope to reach a demographic that's highly vulnerable to trafficking, an illicit global industry estimated to be worth up to US$10 billion a year, second only to the drug trade.

'MTV's audience of 15- to 29-year-olds is exactly the people we need to reach. They're the ones most at risk in this region of being trafficked,' said Richard Whelan, deputy director in Asia for the US Agency for International Development, which spent about US$3 million to produce the documentary.

MTV says it reaches 380 million households in Asia. As that audience is mostly urban and middle-class, Exit programmes will be rebroadcast on free-to-air channels. Aid organisations will also screen films in rural areas to get the message out. In Myanmar, where TV coverage is limited, campaigners plan to use consumer-product marketing networks to distribute VCD copies.

In recent years horror stories of people-trafficking - from Chinese migrants suffocating in the back of trucks in Europe to under age workers enslaved in mainland brick kilns - have grabbed world attention and prompted governments to act. Aid organisations have scrambled to tap into interest from the US and other donors. Bangkok has become the unofficial headquarters for regional action on trafficking and labour abuse.

Measuring the extent of the problem is difficult. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are 12.3 million people in some kind of forced or bonded work, including child labour. Other estimates are higher.

The US State Department, which compiles an annual report that rates countries on their anti-trafficking efforts, says about 800,000 people are sold annually across national borders. It says 80 per cent of those trafficked internationally are women and children, who are mostly sold into commercial sex work.

One such woman is 'Anna', a young Filipino profiled in Traffic. She recounts how she was offered a well-paid job as a waitress by a family friend. She flew to an unnamed East Asian city where an agent picked her up. She was sold into prostitution and raped by a man who had apparently paid for a virgin. 'I was screaming for help,' she tells viewers, her face obscured. 'I called out to God and asked him to help me.' Eventually, she escaped and was repatriated to Manila.

MTV filmed a gangland boss in Manila who sells women to brothels. He explains how he breaks the will of poor women who are locked up and forced into prostitution. The middle-aged man, known as the chairman, agreed to have his face on camera, but the producers obscured it for legal reasons.

Tackling the lucrative trade isn't easy. One reason is corruption, which protects traffickers from arrest. Campaigners say another factor, often less noticed, is that it's hard to untangle regular migration patterns from abusive forms of trafficking, particularly across porous borders in Southeast Asia. Traffickers offer a way out of rural poverty in Cambodia and Myanmar, and a route into more prosperous Thailand. Women who are rescued and sent back home often try again to leave, just as Chinese put their trust in so-called snakeheads, despite the evident dangers.

The producers of the MTV documentary say they want to raise awareness among young people who might be tempted by job offers from traffickers that seem too good to be true. Each film screening will be followed by advice on how to contact anti-trafficking groups and local authorities in each country.

'Some people will still take risks, and this is why we've got to continue making these programmes - to try to ensure that they know these resources exist that can help them,' said Simon Goff, campaign director for MTV.

MTV viewers aren't only potential victims, however. As Traffic makes clear, the trade in humans is driven by demand. So as well as profiling three victims of trafficking, the filmmakers introduce 'Ama', a 23-year-old Taiwanese student with spiky hair and razor-sharp clothes who wouldn't look out of place in an MTV music video. From the shadows, he extols the pleasures of paying for sex with different women.

Sometimes, he says, he senses the women he's with have been forced into prostitution. 'If possible, I will give them extra money, like US$15,' he said. The narrator rebukes him for not reporting his suspicions to authorities or an anti-trafficking group.

Mr Goff said the Exit campaign was squarely aimed at men who used the services of trafficking victims and at younger MTV viewers who may be exposed in future to the sex trade.

He said it was crucial to include an MTV-friendly man who paid for sex to drive home the message that everyone was responsible for their actions.

'Clearly, young guys like that are watching MTV. It's important to make them understand they can't just close their eyes. As he admits in the show, he can tell when a girl he buys sex from is being forced. He needs to take action. He can't just buy off his own guilt with US$15 she's never going to see,' he said.

Critics may ask if MTV, a channel peddling fantasies of luxury living to the masses, is buying off its own guilt with the campaign. In Europe, it ran a similar campaign in 2004, with support from Angelina Jolie, which focused on sexual servitude. That led to the creation of MTV Europe, a British-registered charity supported by the commercial entity.

Mr Goff, who worked on the Europe campaign, said MTV and other commercial broadcasters had a duty to their audience.

'Ultimately, MTV is part of the commercialisation and consumerism that people who are trafficked aspire to be a part of as well, so we also hold a responsibility to inform them of these issues at the same time,' he said.

Experts say traffickers don't simply recruit from the poor and destitute. Edelweiss Silan, a veteran anti-trafficking co-ordinator for Save the Children UK Research, said young people who migrated often had some basic schooling and were not the poorest in the village. For them, a job in the city represented a chance to live the type of urban lifestyle seen on MTV.

'The definition of what is a good life has changed. In the past, if you had food on the table it was enough. Now you have to have a television,' said Ms Silan.

Campaigners say some young people are sold into slavery by their own parents.

Ms Silan recalls a Cambodian girl, aged eight, who was trafficked to Bangkok and forced to beg in the streets. After the girl was rescued and sent to a government-run shelter, the authorities began to trace her family. When Ms Silan asked her about returning to her parents, the girl began to sob. 'Oh no. My mother will sell me again,' she said.

MTV isn't the first broadcaster in Asia to take on human trafficking. A BBC-backed soap opera in Cambodia ran a series of episodes on the topic, with script input from ILO experts. The storyline was so popular when it was shown on TV that the producers later re-edited the episodes into a film that was screened in cinemas.

Allan Dow, a spokesman for ILO's anti-trafficking unit in Bangkok, said it was encouraging to see people respond to messages in mass media, but that more needed to be done to curb trafficking, including stricter law enforcement and rural development.

'Raising awareness is not enough. Government interventions are not enough. You need four or five things at the same time. There needs to be a critical mass developed to reduce the numbers.'