Migration, Sex Work and "Trafficking": Learning from Vietnamese Women’s Experiences in Cambodia

Joanna Busza, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

"Trafficking" receives much international attention - as a violation of human rights, a manifestation of organized crime, and increasingly, as a risk to the health of individuals and communities. The concept of "trafficking" is also commonly conflated with forced prostitution, despite the fact that not all trafficked people end up in the sex industry, and not all sex workers have been coerced or deceived. Yet sex workers' own perceptions, motivations, and concerns rarely inform relevant debates or policies. As a result, local "anti-trafficking" measures often target migrant sex workers but fail to recognize the complex dynamics behind women’s entry into the sex industry or understand their current work conditions and needs. Such measures can actually harm rather than help these communities. This paper presents the case study of Vietnamese sex workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to demonstrate how attempts to reduce exploitation can result in increased human rights abuse and vulnerability to health risks, including HIV. The data presented draws from in-depth interviews and participatory discussions with over 100 sex workers, addressing their experiences of migration, sex work, and relationship to local "gatekeepers" including brothel managers, police, and non-governmental agencies (NGO). Results suggest that responses focused solely on "trafficking" do not benefit these sex workers; instead, a more flexible approach that takes into consideration sex workers' own realities and priorities is needed.

Presented in Session 44: Understanding the Forced Migration of Trafficked Persons and Refugees