Unstoppable trade thrives in the dark
They were sold dreams of simple jobs abroad as supermarket clerks, babysitters and beauticians. They were told of a salary, small for the average Hongkonger but a fortune back home. When they arrived to work they became enslaved.
'They come, only to find themselves in Chungking [Mansions], or in China with a packet of condoms and a room for one night,' said Glamour (not her real name), a volunteer at NGO Vision First, which works with vulnerable people. '[The traffickers] tell them, this is their job.'
Three weeks ago the US State Department published the 2011 edition of its annual Trafficking in Persons report. This states that Hong Kong 'is a destination and transit territory for men and women from mainland China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, subjected to forced prostitution and possibly forced labour'.
It also says that Hong Kong 'does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so', referring to the city's inter-departmental Anti-Trafficking Working Group.
The Hong Kong government, which will host US State Secretary Hillary Clinton next week, insists that it is not a centre for human trafficking, with a spokesman telling the Sunday Morning Post: 'Our position remains that Hong Kong is neither a destination for human trafficking nor a place of origin for exporting illegal immigrants.''
Social workers, consular staff and a victim of trafficking tell a different story, one where Hong Kong, like the US report claims, is not doing enough to combat human trafficking, protect the victims and bring the perpetrators to justice.
'If you hear what these girls tell you; what these guys make them do - you would hate every human being called a man.' said Glamour, who is trusted by Africans working in Hong Kong as prostitutes.
They are people with families to support. They are people who want to flee civil war in their countries, and the traffickers, aware of this, woo them with passports, pictures and plane tickets to a 'new life'.
Glamour estimates there are perhaps a hundred or so such individuals in the city.
'It's hard to get statistics,' said Betty Shao Li-min, a social worker at Zi Teng, a sex worker's advocacy organisation which focuses on the welfare of migrant sex workers. 'Today she's working in Hong Kong; tomorrow, we don't know where she goes.'
Shao says the Africans and Latin Americans form a minority among those forced into sex work, with most women coming from Russia, the mainland and Southeast Asia.
Over the past few years both the Colombian and Thai consulates have dealt with dozens of women requesting repatriation.
Thai Consul Penprapa Poomarin said her consulate did not classify the women as victims of trafficking, as many of them knew they would be working as prostitutes in Hong Kong. 'They know what they'll do here. They just don't agree with the conditions,' she said. Some had their payment withheld, while others were forced to do more than they wanted.
Under the UN's Palermo Protocol, people may be trafficking victims 'regardless of whether they once consented to work for a trafficker, or whether they participated in a crime as a direct result of being trafficked'.
Despite this designation, in 2009 Hong Kong arrested and deported 1,588 women for illegal immigration without identifying any trafficking victims among them.
But Hong Kong has not been entirely complacent. In 2009, the government identified three victims of human trafficking and investigated two cases of sex trafficking. Last year, four cases of trafficking were investigated and five traffickers were convicted of luring five mainland women into Hong Kong and forcing them into prostitution. The traffickers received sentences from 16 months to three years' imprisonment. Three cases are still under investigation, the US report says.
The government has also established the Anti-Trafficking Working Group, made up of officials from the Security Bureau, police, immigration, customs, labour and social welfare departments to co-ordinate anti-trafficking efforts and educate frontline staff on how to identify victims.
Fernando Jablonski, the deputy consul general of Brazil, believes the Hong Kong government's blanket denial of the existence of trafficking shows a lack of political will to tackle the issue.
'Hong Kong is a small city,' he said. 'If you know, and I know, certainly immigration will know.'
He says the reason the government won't acknowledge the problem is economic.
'Who is going to attract people to bars? Many of those sex workers have a visa. They are here because there is a demand.'