On the ground: Caritas Hong Kong and the fight against human trafficking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 1:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

In the busy streets of Central, the doorway to hope and redemption hides inconspicuously among the noisy signs. Humble, low-key and reflective of its Catholic settings, a sense of peace is present within the Diocesan Pastoral Centre for Filipinos, the Caritas Hong Kong office that focuses on reaching out to domestic workers.

Caritas Hong Kong is a local, non-governmental organisation that works with the marginalised. This particular office supports two shelters for women, which sometimes takes in victims of human trafficking. Phoebe Lam Bik-che is the social worker and project officer of this particular division.

It’s obvious the passion and heart Lam has for the issue of human trafficking, as she fights on behalf of survivors of trafficking - giving them hope for justice.

Of the human-trafficking cases she’s seen brought to court- already a small amount - only two with traffickers as defendants have been successful. Hong Kong has had 14 official cases of human trafficking since 2008.

While the low number of trafficking cases identified each year suggests that the problem is not severe in Hong Kong, the stories Lam has heard say otherwise.

Some women are tricked: they are told they will be given waitressing jobs in Hong Kong, or are given a “free” tourism trip to Hong Kong by a friend but find themselves in the sex trade instead. Others are told they will work in the sex trade and earn several hundred thousand of dollars a night, but instead work for next to nothing. All of the women in sex trafficking cases enter under foreign domestic worker papers, tourist visas, or under illegal paperwork compiled by their traffickers.

The women are told not to bring money into Hong Kong, but upon arrival, are ordered to pay back fees (airfare, documents, etc.) of up to HK$10,000. Without the money, they are locked in boarding houses until they agree to pay. Some are given the choice between serving drinks for HK$80 per hour, or providing sexual services for HK$2,000 to HK$3,000 per client. Around HK$800 of which go towards paying off their debt, while traffickers will take the rest.

Others are treated worse. There are stories of girls being gang-raped repeatedly for HK$100 per customer for five minutes each. The trafficker pockets all of the money.

Many of these women come from countries where it is common to fear the police, who are often corrupt. Little wonder then, that they do not run for help here in Hong Kong when opportunity arises. Even so, those who are brave enough to go to the police face a likelihood of being shamed, derided, called a liar, or locked up for being in Hong Kong illegally, and then deported.

A lucky few manage to get in contact with the Philippine consulate and the human trafficking unit of Hong Kong Police’s Organised Crime and Triad Bureau (OCTB), which, Lam says, treat the women with respect, care and concern.

The women are then put in contact with Lam, who brings them to stay in the shelter while they await for both their own and their traffickers’ trials to begin.

This is not the end of their journey. Even during the waiting period, before their case makes it to trial, they and their families are harassed, intimidated, and threatened. Afraid for their families and their reputations, many victims do not follow through on the cases, choosing instead to serve time in jail for being illegally in Hong Kong and then deported home, with no justice served. Even those who do follow through on their cases often face disbelief in almost every level - from the interpreters to the judges, and their cases are often thrown out.

One victim recounted to Lam that although she didn’t regret testifying against her prosecutors, but she was disappointed that she herself ended up in prison, while her traffickers got off scot-free. It was because the judge could not believe that she didn’t run away when she had the chance.

In aftercare, there are problems as well. As foreign nationals, victims have to pay much more than locals for medical care, and are unable to pay the bills on their own.

“I am so thankful to the OCTB,” Lam said. “Caritas cannot cover all of the costs - we’re a non-profit organisation and we are stretched so thin. One time, the hospital kept placing the bill next to a trafficking victim and asking her when she is going to pay, while giving her dirty looks. We do not have the resources to help the girls, and the girls do not have the money.

“In this one particular case, the OCTB stepped in and covered the bill for the victim - all HK$49,000.”

Hong Kong has a misconception of human trafficking, Lam said grimly.

“Everyone in the system - the police, lawyers, judges, interpreters, doctors, nurses, immigration officials, social workers - needs more education on this topic. Laws need to be changed and made clear, to protect victims,” Lam said. “The Hong Kong government should work with other governments to prevent human trafficking. There needs to be more awareness. It should not be on the victim to get help, and getting help should not be a matter of luck.”

Additional reporting by Jennifer Cheng