Jean never knew how long it would take to repay her debt. All she knew was that doing so was destroying her. To meet the never-ending demands of her “agent” she would sell her body up to three times a night to men she met at the same Hong Kong bar where, on paper, she was employed as a “domestic helper”.

On the better nights, she might earn HK$4,000 for her “mamasan” – the female pimp managing her and 12 other prostitutes at the same bar.

On the worse ones, that same mamasan would beat her or force her into taking hard drugs with her “johns” (clients) to keep them happy.

“Life was hell. I was just surviving,” recalled the Filipino. “Clients ask you to buy drugs like cocaine, ice, marijuana, anything the clients want. They make you take it with them. We could earn a lot of money from using drugs with clients.”

It was a far cry from the good life and pleasant job in a restaurant she had been promised when a recruiter visited her home town in Pampanga in 2014. Jean, a single mother of a 4-year-old girl with no family support network, took the job out of desperation.

She arrived in Hong Kong on a tourist visa, and was told by her recruiters she owed a heavy debt for the cost of her ticket, visa and living expenses. To pay it off, she would have to prostitute herself. “Of course it’s like torture to pay back the debt,” she recalled. “The agent doesn’t care. They don’t know how clients treat you badly.”

Jean’s plight, while horrific, is far from unique. Last year, Hong Kong was downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List in the US State Department’s global rankings on human trafficking, just one rank above the worst offending nations like North Korea.

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The State Department says that traffickers commonly use promises of employment to lure vulnerable women from the Philippines and Thailand to Hong Kong, where they confiscate their passports and force them into prostitution through debt bondage. Its most recent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report criticised Hong Kong for lacking a comprehensive law in line with the internationally recognised UN Palermo Protocol on Human Trafficking and said the city did “ not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” despite “making significant efforts”.

It urged the city to proactively identify trafficking victims among vulnerable groups such as migrants, domestic workers and women and children in prostitution.

At around the same time as the State Department’s report, the trial of British banker Rurik Jutting, jailed for life for killing two Indonesian women he met in Wan Chai’s red light district, was intensifying the spotlight on Hong Kong’s prostitution scene.

It was in a bar not unlike the ones where Jutting met his victims that Jean found herself working shortly after arriving in the city. Her recruiters had arranged a two-year domestic helper visa for her as part of an arrangement with the bar, where she worked with women of other nationalities.

“There were too many women to count,” said Jean. “[In the bars] there were Colombian women, Filipinos, Indonesians, Thai women. I was deceived. These girls are deceived… then forced into prostitution [by having their] passports taken.”

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Her agent never told Jean exactly how much she owed, though Jean estimates she paid back more than 1 million pesos (HK$155,000).

A typical arrangement involves the client paying HK$5,000 for a full night with a prostitute – a charge that may or may not include drugs (prostitutes who work by themselves in single-room brothels charge much less, about HK$300-400 per client). Of this, $4,000 would typically go to either the bar owner or mamasan, while HK$1,000 would go to the prostitute. The twist is that the prostitute will not keep even that HK$1,000 – it will go towards the “debt” their recruiter will insist they owe – a moving target that changes constantly to suit the agent.

“It was very traumatic,” Jean said. “I can hardly talk about it.”

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the action or practice of legally or illegally transporting people from one place to another for the purposes of forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation. Profits from human trafficking are estimated to be US$150 billion annually, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Nurul Qoiriah, head of the Hong Kong office of International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a Geneva-based international governmental agency that assists foreign migrants, said victims of sex trafficking were “often found in the streets or working in particular establishments that facilitate commercial sex acts such as strip clubs, brothels, pornography production houses, night clubs, bars, spas, etc”.

“Sex trafficking in Hong Kong SAR is usually an underground crime, where it’s often challenging for law enforcement personnel and service providers to identify potential victims. In most situations, victims cannot escape from the traffickers.”

Jean said the bar she had worked in was co-owned by a Hong Kong police officer. It has since closed.

In an unrelated case, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) said on January 25 that 12 people, including three police officers, had been arrested on suspicion of corruption in relation to enforcement action against two nightclubs.

The ICAC said the officers might have accepted a “substantial amount of bribes in cash and other forms of advantages from the operators of the nightclubs” in exchange for tipping them off about police action.

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Traffickers had various ways of preventing victims from seeking help, said Qoiriah. “[They] may threaten to turn victims without valid visas or proper work permits in to the authorities, and may tell victims that police will harm them if they seek help.”

Force is often used to keep them in line. “I was beaten up by the mamasans. They slammed me against the wall. Mamasans have [great] control over us,” Jean said.

Qoiriah said identifying trafficking victims was hard because they were often dependent on the abuser, afraid of deportation or imprisonment, unaware of their rights and the concept of human trafficking and had feelings of guilt and shame.

“It’s very hard for people to understand unless you’ve gone through trauma. It numbs you,” said Marcela Santos, an advocate who has helped Jean.

“It’s a Stockholm Syndrome situation for these ladies,” she said, referring to the psychological condition in which a hostage identifies with their captor as a survival strategy. “They hope [the mamasan will] be nice to them. She is like their mother. But she kind of pits the other women against each other and controls them.”

Santos helped Jean escape by buying her a plane ticket back to the Philippines. She has met eight Filipinos who were forced into prostitution through different trafficking rings. Most were issued domestic helper visas. “Jean was completely clueless of what the agency was doing because the mamasans were taking care of the visa process. It’s their way to control [the situation], making sure the women don’t know any of the process,” Santos said. “[The women] don’t have the skills to ask questions or they don’t think they can find a way out of their bad situation.”

Instead, they must put a brave face on their plight. “They are great actresses because like one of them said, ‘I need to show that I am happy and OK even when I am not’,” said Santos. “This to me kills a soul.”

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Another woman, Liz, who worked at a different bar from Jean, had been promised a job as a restaurant waitress. When she flew into Hong Kong, her trafficker and two men from the Philippines accompanied her to make sure she didn’t make trouble when she found out what her true job would be.

Liz arrived on a tourist visa, and had to shuttle back and forth every fortnight between Hong Kong and China to avoid overstaying. The agency created false hotel reservations for her and other trafficked women to show the customs officers. Liz had to pay the agency for the hotel reservations even though she didn’t stay there.

A police source said organised criminal gangs were usually involved in bringing illegal immigrants to Hong Kong as prostitutes.

Kat, a 23-year-old Filipino who has been working as a prostitute in a Hong Kong bar since December, believes she will need another three to four months to repay her debt. “I’m traumatised. There are three other women at my bar that feel the same. I always feel in danger. I take a risk every time I go out with a male customer,” said the single mother, weeping. “I have no other choice.”

Kat said she was forced to participate in “wild parties” where hard drugs are used.

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The mamasans allow her to keep the commission made from drinks bought by clients in the bar. Under a system common in Hong Kong, a bar may charge HK$100 a drink, of which HK$50 will go to the bar, HK$50 to the prostitute. The woman must sit with the client while he drinks, during which time he can touch her however he wants. Under this system, Kat managed to send HK$5,000 back to the Philippines in January to support her young daughter and ill mother.

“I feel a heaviness in my heart every time I think of the women who work in the bars,” Santos said. “I think of the darkness, loneliness and pain that goes beyond the physical abuse they receive from clients, mamasans and bar owners. I think about one lady who told me about the ugliness and disgust that she feels every night and trying to erase that when she says her prayers. How could I not want to get her out of that?”

Hong Kong’s Security Bureau says the city does not need dedicated legislation against the trafficking of persons as outlined in the UN Palermo Protocol. It says Hong Kong already has laws that deal with criminal activities related to human trafficking and that penalties range from 10 years to life imprisonment.

Sandy Wong, chairwoman of the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee of the Hong Kong Federation of Women Lawyers, said: “We do have laws to tackle sex trafficking but not in the sense of how the international community understands the issues. We also do not have specific labour trafficking laws. So on that front, there can be a lot of improvement. But it is not only the government but also the community that has to rise up to tighten our laws.”

Human trafficking in Hong Kong: hidden in plain sight

Last year, the Hong Kong Police Force and Immigration Department put in place an enhanced mechanism for screening and identifying potential trafficking victims. The list of vulnerable trafficking victims has been expanded to sex workers, illegal workers and illegal immigrants. More than 1,000 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, Labour Department and Social Welfare Department officers received training on human trafficking last year.

A local NGO estimates at least 20,000 prostitutes work in Hong Kong. However, Ann Lee, a spokeswoman for Zi Teng, a support group for sex workers, estimates there are 500,000 women working in the city’s sex trade through roles in massage parlours, spas, compensated dating and as freelance prostitutes. She estimates about 1 in 50 are under 18.

“We also need to go to the source of demand and supply,” said Wong. “Despite the police’s efforts in combating vice establishments, many operate in broad daylight. If we don’t stop the source of demand, there will always be someone who will provide the supply by hook and by crook. Punishing the johns in Sweden [is] an effective measure and should be a model to adopt.”

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Sweden’s prostitution laws criminalise the buying of sex – putting the criminal focus on the clients rather than the prostitutes. Swedish laws also offer support for women who want to leave prostitution.

However, critics say that punishing the clients will leave the prostitutes more vulnerable.

“If you penalise the customer, they won’t pay for sex services. The whole industry will move underground and it’ll be more difficult for social workers to contact sex workers. It’ll be more hidden,” said Lee of Zi Teng.

Organised criminal groups have also tricked and forced African women into prostitution in Hong Kong and mainland China. In 2013, Esther from Tanzania arrived in Shenzhen on a tourist visa before being forced to have sex with several men everyday for three months to pay back a massive debt. She also worked in Hong Kong, often walking the streets all night to find clients.

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Su, a single mother of two boys also from Africa, arrived expecting to work in a hotel before finding that “there was no job. It was prostitution”. Her passport was taken from her, leaving her trapped, with “no other place to go, no money”.

She said she had made at least US$40,000 in four months for the people who trafficked her.

One NGO has helped 200 Nepalese women who were forced into prostitution in Hong Kong since 1996. The women were staying at Chungking Mansions.

Jean, now 25, is in rehab in Manila to heal the psychological scars and recover from drug addiction. Her advocate Santos has visited to help her look for a job.

“My daughter keeps me going. I’m studying to finish my high school education,” said Jean. “I don’t know what kind of job I’ll get. I want to go back to a normal life... I want dignity.”

Victims of human trafficking can contact IOM on 2332-2441 or via WhatsApp on 9481-9030. Names in this article have been changed to protect the women