In Asia, MTV turns camera on trafficking

A US-funded documentary debuts Tuesday that will educate Asian youths about risks of exploitation.

Its high production values, driving musical score, and slick edits make the film, in the words of its producers, "very MTV."

But don't expect to see boy bands or risqué hip-hop. MTV's "Traffic" is a hard-hitting, US-funded documentary that is part of a campaign aimed at educating vulnerable youth in Asia about the risks of being trafficked illegally for exploitative labor.

The movie, which premieres Tuesday on MTV Thailand, is tailored for the US broadcaster's vast youth audience in go-getting East Asia. By raising awareness of the dangers, campaigners say they hope to address a practice that is akin to modern-day slavery.

"This is a criminal enterprise and it involves criminals," says Richard Whelden, deputy director in Asia for the US Agency for International Development, which is funding the MTV campaign. "It's undercover and in the shadows. What we're doing is putting a spotlight on the problem and bringing it out in the open so you can see what it is: slavery."

Antitrafficking advocates say that governments in Southeast Asia, where smuggling of women and children is rife, have begun to tighten laws and step up cross-border cooperation. This has allowed for some successful criminal prosecutions. But traffickers continue to exploit porous borders and lax policing, while shifting their operations to countries that have yet to fully outlaw the practice and only enforce labor laws with milder penalties.

MTV's 24-minute television special seeks to portray the dangers of human trafficking in Asia through the harrowing stories of three young victims. One is sold overseas into commercial sex work, another is beaten and abused as a domestic servant, and the third is forced to work around the clock in a factory. Viewers will also get advice on where to turn for help and how to get involved in the campaign.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 12.3 million people worldwide are engaged in some kind of forced or bonded work, including child labor. Much of this takes place within a single country's borders: Hundreds of teenagers and adults were found earlier this year toiling in prisonlike conditions in kilns and mines in central China.

The State Department estimates that around 800,000 people are sold illegally across national borders. It says that 80 percent of those trafficked internationally are women and children, most of whom are sold into prostitution. The global market for smuggled people is worth between $7 billion and $10 billion annually, second only to the illegal drug trade.

Thailand's sex industry has long been a magnet for traffickers. As Thai authorities try to curb the most egregious abuses, criminals have switched to supplying women to brothels in Malaysia and Singapore, says Edelweiss Silan, an antitrafficking coordinator in Bangkok for Save the Children. "They're trying to move to where laws are not in place, and people aren't aware of the issue," she says.

These shortcomings will likely dampen the impact of regional information campaigns unless they're harnessed to long-term rural development and better governance, say advocates. "Raising awareness is not enough. Government interventions are not enough ... there needs to be a critical mass developed to reduce the numbers," says Allan Dow, a spokesman for the ILO's antitrafficking unit in Bangkok.

Called EXIT, or End Exploitation and Trafficking, the MTV campaign includes public service spots, South Korean-made animation shorts, and a multilingual website ( "Traffic" is being dubbed into eight languages by local celebrities, such as Korean pop icon Rain. In South Asia, a separate documentary called "Sold" will be aired. Advocacy groups say trafficking patterns differ in that region.

MTV says it reaches 380 million mainly urban households across Asia. To get the message out to rural areas where traffickers mostly recruit, EXIT specials will be rebroadcast on free-to-air channels, says Simon Goff, campaign director for MTV. Local organizations will also screen films in at-risk communities. In Burma (Myanmar), where TV coverage is limited, MTV plans to distribute free copies via consumer-product marketing networks.

Experts say another factor complicating the response to trafficking is that it's often hard to untangle the forced, illegal movement from voluntary migration. People smugglers offer a way out of rural poverty, so migrants who are rescued and repatriated may try to leave again, despite the risks. Some antitrafficking raids on brothels in Thailand have incurred the wrath of sex workers who reject being classified as victims who need to be saved.

Given this complexity, campaigners say MTV's message to viewers isn't as simple as "Don't do it." "Some people will still take risks. And this is why we've got to continue making these programs to try to ensure that they know these resources exist that can help them," says Mr. Goff.

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