Seoul International Conference Against Human Trafficking in Migrant Women

Posted: July 2, 2010 in Event Review

Review by Tom Rainey-Smith (the opinions expressed herein reflect those of the author only).

A small group of Amnesty G48 members were fortunate enough to attend this very educational and important event held on Monday, June 28. It marked the first time that there has been such a conference in South Korea focused specifically on trafficking and was hosted by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK). All the more important given the current climate in Korea in which many civil society organizations including the Commission are functioning under the constraints of reduced government funding and a worsening climate for human rights and basic freedoms, and especially in light of the issue of Filipino women being trafficked into Korea on E6 “entertainment” visas and forced into sexual servitude. Read Amnesty International’s report here.

Of the many speakers presenting, which included government officials, national assembly representatives, public interest lawyers, women’s human rights scholars and activists, international human rights commissioners, and others, perhaps the most important speaker was Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Trafficking in Persons. There were also representatives of the Korean Women’s Association United and My Sister’s Place, two organizations that have done much in the fight against trafficking in Korea. A noticeable absence was the Dashi Hamkke Center, the organization set up by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2003 specifically to work on the issue of sex trafficking in Korea.

In her keynote speech, sadly restricted to a mere 20 minutes in length, Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo presented some damning statistics: according to official sources (United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs, U.S. department of State and the International Labor Organization) 2.5 million people around the world currently being trafficked at any one time, 800,000 women and children are trafficked across borders annually, with 43 per cent being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, 32 per cent for labor exploitation and 25 per cent for a combination of both. Additionally, the Asia Pacific region accounts for the largest number of people forced into labor through trafficking with over half of the global total of 2,450,000. She also emphasized that this problem is deeply linked to the global number of migrants, with women accounting for 51.6% of all migrants in 2010.

She described the trafficking of migrant women domestic workers as the worst form of trafficking as these women face two forms of discrimination simultaneously; firstly as migrants and secondly as women, the magnitude of this problem being very difficult to judge as it takes place behind closed doors. The legal status of these women is directly linked to their employers, giving employers much power over them and leading to abuse. We can see parallels here with what migrant workers face in Korea, including across relatively privileged groups within this category such as English teachers. The high demand and lucrative nature of this multi-billion dollar industry indicate that it is not likely to disappear any time soon.

Ms. Ezelio then went on to illustrate the insidious nature of this industry by drawing on the case of one of the estimated 20,000 migrant domestic workers in the UK, a story I won’t recount for all of its ugliness, but which I urge you to read yourself.

Amnesty International currently campaigns for women domestic workers in Indonesia, migrant workers in Malaysia and girl domestic workers in Haiti and I strongly urge you to act on these now.

She defined some of the root causes of trafficking as “growing poverty, youth employment and gender inequalities, discrimination, gender based violence, especially of women and girls, including the prevailing social frameworks” and offered her vision of an integrated plan to tackling this issue. The difficulties, which she was keenly aware, lie in the complexity of this problem illustrated by the need for international cooperation as well as national and regional policies, a lack of substantive data on the actual scope of the problem, and developing ways of empowering victims to be able to speak out (see video clip below). This last goal may be in many ways the hardest to achieve, but it certainly seems crucial if we put any stock in a survivor-centered approach.

The United Nations is currently working on its Global Plan of Action which should be released by the end of 2010.

Director of My Sister’s Place, Ms. You, Young-Nim was perhaps the best placed to speak at length on the issue of sex trafficking in Korea. Her organization works directly with Filipino women trafficked into Korean and has established a house where these women survivors of modern day sexual slavery reside. While her speech was not translated into English for the program, I’ll do my best to give a brief outline from my notes, accompanied by some thoughts of my own.

As a result of the women’s movement which took shape in Korea in the 1970s (and of which the Korea Women’s Association United has been at the forefront of) which led to, amongst other things, a higher level of education, by the late 1990s there was a strong movement demanding the protection of the rights of Korean women being trafficked inside Korea. (It should be noted here that there have always been these voices in Korea; the history of Your Sister’s Place is testament to this.) By 2004 there were over 100 help stations set up around the country for Korean women, but very little exists in the way of support for migrant women in Korea.

Since the late 1990s 3 – 4,000 women have entered Korea every year, in large part to work at the many clubs and bars set up around US Military bases. While this number was traditionally made up of women from Eastern Europe, over the past decade this number has overwhelmingly been filled by Filipino women. It is useful to understand what brings these women to Korea.

Many of these women are tricked into entering the country on an E6 “entertainment” visa with the promise of a singing work. They are asked to submit a video of themselves performing a song which is then used by their broker in the Philippines to find them a place to ‘work’ in Korea. Many are very young and see working in Korea as a way to provide for their families back home or to save up some money. Once inside the country, they are sent to their “employer,” the owner of a bar or club (referred to as a “juicy bar”) who will give them a place to stay and explain their “work” duties. They are under the constant supervision of a mamasan, an older woman who makes sure they are earning money for the bar.

First of all they are told that they must sell a certain quota of drinks per month by sitting with men. Typically these men are US soldiers as these clubs are typically located around US military bases. For example, Ms. You said that there are over 100 such clubs in Gyeonggido and sex transactions take place at virtually all of these places. These quotas are set at an unobtainable level, driving women quickly into debt. Once the women are in debt and financially dependent on their employers, they are forced into a modern form of sexual slavery. This happens in the form of what are called “bar fines” where women are forced to sell their bodies in order to pay off their debts.*

While Filipino women are the largest single group of women being trafficked into Korea in this way, despite legal restrictions being put in place in 2003 to curb the trafficking of Russian women in 2003, Russian women are still being brought into Korea on “art visas” and entering the sex industry. In rural regions of Korea as well, aside from the hugely important issue of “imported brides,” up to 200 Chinese women were found to have been in so-called tea shops in one region.

Ms. You spoke about the need for much stronger government support on combating trafficking of migrant women in Korea, saying that NGOs are not strong enough on their own to provide the necessary support to all of these women. New legislation on trafficking was proposed by a National Assembly member in 2009, but there are fears that this proposal is not comprehensive enough to adequately deal with the problem.

From the UNOHCR: Survivors of Human Trafficking Speak Out

*Please note that this is not footage from the conference.

This is a very brief summary of a couple of important speeches only. If anyone would like to find out more or read the full program for the conference including complete transcripts for the majority of the presentations in English, please email Tom on

I accompanied a journalist from the Hankyoreh for an article on Filipino women being trafficked into Korea and met with a number of young women first hand.


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