On a bright November afternoon, Golden Bridge Street is showing signs of life. In glass-fronted rooms, young women in pyjamas curl up on couches, yawning and watching television. Some sweep the floor and clean windows lined with dolls and stuffed animals; others nip outside to a grocery store to buy cigarettes and bottles of green tea. On the street, groups of men in leather jackets smoke and chat. Periodically, a taxi pulls through a tall archway next door to the police station, dropping off a girl who has worked through the night. This is Erlian, a Gobi Desert boomtown on the Chinese side of the Mongolian border. In a room littered with ash and cigarette butts, Alimaa (not her real name), 23, rests before another long shift. She wears heavy makeup and green nail polish and has dyed auburn hair. A puppy plays with a chunk of chipped drywall beside her and drinks from a bowl of curdled milk. Sitting on a couch under a poster of a half-naked woman, Alimaa chain smokes Esse Lights and chats with two colleagues who, like her, are Mongolian prostitutes. With remarkable calm, Alimaa explains how she came to be here. Two years ago, when she was living in Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital, she and a friend were recruited by two men to work in a karaoke bar in Beijing. When she arrived in the Chinese capital, the recruiters told her she would have to work as a prostitute. 'They took us to different rooms in a hotel and showed us Chinese girls who had been raped,' Alimaa says. 'They said, 'Take a look, this is what will happen if you don't do this.'' Alimaa hid her passport in her boots and, later that night, escaped. For two days and nights she hid on a construction site before a Mongolian contact in Beijing brought her to Erlian. Broke and with no place to go, Alimaa resigned herself to her fate and started working in a brothel. Alimaa's is a story familiar to thousands of Mongolian women, from the brothels of Erlian to the bars of Beijing and the casinos of Macau. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Mongolians are trafficked every year, the majority of whom are women and children recruited by deceit into the sex industry. According to Chimgee Ulzii, of the Mongolia Gender Equality Centre (GEC) in Ulan Bator, recruiters usually have contacts in the destination cities and are often women who have themselves been trafficked. Victims are generally uneducated and desperate for a way out of poverty. Some are already prostitutes but have been misled about pay and working conditions; others are recruited by advertisements in newspapers promising overseas scholarships or containing vague offers of employment. Once they have reached their destination, the women are routinely abused both physically and mentally. Many are beaten, forced to take drugs, raped and repeatedly sold. Trafficked women often find themselves trapped in a system of 'debt-bondage', in which their employer demands 'repayment' for travel and other costs, which can be astronomical. Some girls run away but most, lacking money, travel documents and help of any kind, are forced to stay for several years. Repatriated women suffer physically and emotionally; many are forced to seek medical treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and depression. With no work experience and few options, many return to what they know; prostitution or becoming a trafficker themselves. 'Trafficking is growing very fast,' says Amgalan Erdenechuluun, a project officer at the Human Security Policy Studies Centre, an NGO in Ulan Bator working to combat the practice. The young women 'want to believe that there's something better out there. But when they reach the destination country they find themselves trapped in a nightmare. They're just slaves'. In 1990, the collapse of communism in Mongolia ushered in a multiparty political system and the start of a shaky transition to a market economy. While democracy provided Mongolians with new-found freedom, it also helped foster the conditions in which human trafficking thrives. In 1992, a new constitution introduced the right to travel abroad, which, combined with urban migration, poverty, unemployment and age and gender discrimination in the workforce, ensured a steady stream of vulnerable targets for traffickers. In the centre of Erlian there is a square in which stands a statue of a naked woman, its paint chipped and yellowing, holding a small globe in an extended hand. Locals say the statue represents the beauty of Mongolian womanhood, although no one seems sure how it got there. Around the corner is the town's market, where dozens of jeeps are parked, loaded with goods, their drivers waiting to make one of many daily trips across the border. When they return, some of the jeeps will bring trafficked women into the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Erlian being the gateway to China for many of them. Most will be ferried onwards to other Chinese cities, Hong Kong and Macau included, while some end up staying and working here. About 300 Mongolian women work as prostitutes in Erlian, according to NGOs. Signs of the sex trade are everywhere. One morning, a woman with a cigarette hanging from her lips approaches, holding a bundle of yuan. When her foreign exchange services are rebuffed she asks if we want girls and gives us a phone number to call if we're interested. Later, Havar, a 33-year-old Inner Mongolian wearing a black leather jacket and driving a hatchback, takes us to Golden Bridge Street, Erlian's best-known red-light district. He says the youngest women charge 300 yuan (HK$340) for the night or 200 yuan for an hour. Older women earn as little as 20 yuan per session. A colleague of Alimaa, Gerlee (also not her real name), a 22-year-old with a round face, rosy cheeks and a faded tattoo of a heart on her shoulder, says she gives 30 per cent of what she makes to her boss, a pint-size Chinese man who runs in and out of the brothel during our interview. He pays the rent and the girls live in the back room. When asked if she feels trapped, Gerlee, who came to Erlian after falling out with her Inner Mongolian boyfriend, says, 'I'm just looking for money. It doesn't make it good or bad.' Bolormaa owns a brothel on Golden Bridge Street. Two years ago, the attractive 27-year-old met a woman in Ulan Bator who told her she could make good money in Erlian working as a waitress. The woman brought her to a hotel in Erlian and then told Bolormaa she was expected to work as a prostitute. 'I was shocked - I really didn't want to do it,' says Bolormaa, as she dabs thick orange foundation on her cheeks. 'I tried to get help. But everyone else I met just tried to sell me on. I didn't have any money so I finally agreed to sleep with one of the men. I remember my first client very well. It was horrible.' Now Bolormaa introduces other girls to their first punter and lives in a small room with no windows behind the brothel she bought with her earnings. On her bed are stuffed animals and a Hello Kitty pillow. She employs four girls, including a 17-year-old. 'I make sure that my girls always use condoms. I take good care of them,' she says. 'I just want to make enough money to have a good life. Who knows what will happen in the future.' In the marketplace, two middle-aged women with weathered faces and blackened teeth are sucking on sugar cubes. After offering us girls, they ask our translator, a Mongolian journalist, to go to Mongolia on a recruitment run. 'Can you find us girls?' one asks. 'It's good business. If you can find five girls, the [brothel] owners will pay you 2,000 yuan for each.' The women say trafficking is getting more difficult as officials are cracking down. Last year, they say, border guards stopped traffickers from bringing 24 girls into China. Still, the trade is thriving. 'Many, many girls work here. Some girls know they will be working as prostitutes [when they arrive],' one woman says. 'Some don't.' ON A TUESDAY NIGHT in the dimly lit Eighteen Sauna in Macau's Golden Dragon Hotel, a few dozen men - most are Chinese, with some foreigners - wrapped in red towels wait with eager eyes. To electronic music, a line of about 70 women wearing lingerie is paraded in front of them, circling hot tubs in the centre. Each has a number pinned to her bra. The men are quick to choose, walking down the line to stand opposite their preferred girl. They will be allowed to spend two hours with their choice, the price depending on nationality. According to a laminated menu presented upon arrival, a 'Taiwan model massage' costs HK$1,914 and is the most expensive on the list. Further down is a 'Mongolian massage', priced at HK$1,705. 'Fifteen per cent government tax,' the cashier says, tapping his thin index finger on the menu. 'Hand jobs are cheaper,' he quips. Macau now rivals Las Vegas in gaming revenues but the mix that attracted the majority of visitors to the former Portuguese colony before the 1999 handover - gambling and sex - remains the same. Unlike in the mainland, prostitution is legal in Macau. Many of the smaller hotels and casinos have entire floors dedicated to 'saunas' - a polite term for brothels. The young women who staff them come primarily from the mainland, Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia. Increasingly, according to NGOs, Mongolian women are joining them. According to GEC research, there are an estimated 500 Mongolian sex workers in Macau, the vast majority of whom are working under duress. Sold to sauna owners, the girls' passports are confiscated and they are made to live in tiny dormitories inside the hotel or casino in which they work. If the women complain, they are threatened with violence or rape. In 2007, a 15-year-old girl's tongue was cut out by her captors after she sent text messages pleading for help, according to GEC caseworkers. Naran Munkhbat is a GEC outreach worker from Ulan Bator doing an internship - the first of its kind - with the International Organisation for Migration in Hong Kong. The 24-year-old has spent four months seeking out Mongolian sex workers in Macau and Hong Kong, attempting to learn their stories and, if possible, offer help. It's no easy task; fearing violent reprisal, most girls will not speak to Munkhbat in her capacity as an NGO worker. She often has to pretend she's a prostitute on a visa run from Hong Kong and sprinkles into her conversation questions about the women's health and safety. 'Traffickers control everything about the girls. They threaten to call their families and say they're working as a 'slut' in Macau. The pimps treat the girls as money-making machines and they control them by any means to keep them in debt,' she says. Munkhbat is concerned about her safety when talking to the girls and about being mistaken for a prostitute at the border. Munkhbat, who is tall and slim, with long black hair and prominent cheek bones, points out the bars, clubs and saunas where Mongolians work. Outside the Golden Sauna, in the run-down Rua Cantao hotel, staff dressed in tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts hover, trying to attract customers. Inside, a thin man in a cheap black suit and white shirt shows us the menu. Here, a one-hour 'Mongolian massage' costs HK$1,586. There are no customers. Music blares, steam rises from a small hot tub in the centre and 20 girls are told to line up in a row. The girls bow when we enter. Two Vietnamese giggle but the rest look drained and withdrawn. In the corner, we spot one of Golden Sauna's Mongolian workers. She is in her early 20s, taller than the rest, wearing a black bikini. Her shoulders are slumped and she has heavy bags under her eyes. We walk out, telling the man in the suit we'll return. Outside and out of sight, Munkhbat draws on a menthol cigarette, her eyes flitting over the street. 'It's like this all over the city,' she says. 'We don't know exactly how many of these girls are here of their own choice but if there are any, they're in the minority.' To get the girls to have sex with as many clients as possible, the sauna owners do everything they can to keep them indebted, she says. They ban women from buying their own condoms; instead, owners sell them to the girls - at a mark up. 'If a man wants unsafe sex and the girl refuses, she will lose money and will have to work as a prostitute even longer,' Munkhbat says. 'Some owners sell drugs to the girls, get them addicted and then they have to pay their debts by having sex with more men. Drug addiction keeps the owners in control.' The Macanese government says it's clamping down on the trade in women across its borders. In June last year, it introduced a new human trafficking law, which has given police more powers to arrest and prosecute those involved in the trade. A 24-hour hotline has been set up and seminars have been organised. But it's far from enough, Munkhbat says. Corruption in Macau is rife, she says, and officials are easily bribed into turning a blind eye. 'If it really wanted to help, the government would co-ordinate with international NGOs like ours,' she says. Macau's police force complains that, despite the new legislation, officers still lack the proper legal tools to enforce the law. In Mongolia, the issue of trafficking was downplayed between the early 1990s and 2006, with only six cases going to court. It wasn't until 2007 that authorities started taking the issue seriously, working with NGOs such as the GEC to publicise trafficking, boosting the number of police investigations and pushing the attorney general to set up the Office for the Prosecution of Trafficking and Corruption. By April last year, the courts had convicted 17 perpetrators in 13 cases - nearly twice as many convictions as in the entire previous decade. Last February, the Mongolian parliament strengthened the country's trafficking laws, expanding their remit and adding stiffer penalties for traffickers. Still, critics say these expanded laws do not go far enough. (Both the Mongolian embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Erlian declined to be interviewed for this article.) With or without new laws and inter-governmental co-ordination, there is an underlying problem that all groups working to combat trafficking must contend with: fear - of reprisals, of further exile and isolation - that prevents the vast majority of trafficked women from coming forward, whether in Erlian, Beijing, Macau or back in Mongolia. Legislation and outreach will be difficult without first-hand information and the co-operation of victims. Munkhbat wrestles with this dilemma. Since she arrived in Hong Kong and began making bi-weekly visits to Macau, she's met just a dozen or so Mongolian sex workers and only one has admitted to being trafficked. Most are suspicious of her and refuse to open up. Over dinner at a Portuguese restaurant near the Lisboa Hotel, Munkhbat vents her frustration. 'It's difficult to be an outreach worker,' she says. 'I've met many girls in bars in Hong Kong, many friends. But [in Macau] it's impossible, I can't force them to talk to me. The girls here might be fine to walk down the streets or go out but they're under such psychological pressure, they can't talk to anyone.' She pauses. 'They live in this world where they have only themselves to trust. No one else.'