Joanna Mayhew meets the founder and director of Chab Dai, a coalition of organisations working to end human trafficking. Photograph by Conor Wall.

What was your first exposure to human trafficking?
I moved to Cambodia 15 years ago, and my first piece of research was looking at this phenomenon occurring on the border between Cambodia and Thailand. It was 1999, and the journey from Battambang to Poipet, which now is two hours, took 17. I remember thinking, this is the most horrendous journey I’ve ever done. It wasn’t until I got to Poipet and understood the entry point into this whole horrific issue of trafficking that the journey became symbolic. It symbolised that it was a really hard road, there were loads of issues along the way, breakdowns, potholes, [but] it was worth it.

How would you describe today’s trafficking situation?
There has been progress made. Even though statistics are difficult to get in a world where criminals are operating in multiple layers, we know that the level of sexual exploitation of young minors has gone down. However, [in] the last decade we’ve seen a shift underground. Before, it was much more visible. Police could do brothel raids, pick up the girls pretty quickly and get them into aftercare, pick up a lot of the customers, and some of the pimps. A lot of the cases we’re seeing are still minors. There is a large market for [the 15 to 18] age group, and that is a huge concern.

What are some common misconceptions?
I think one of the assumptions a lot of foreigners come in with is that most of the men exploiting minors for sex are Caucasian. In fact, the majority of them are Asian. The top exploiter within any nationality is the local nationality. [Another] myth is that sexual trafficking only happens to girls. That’s become the typical imagery. But actually, for the foreign cases, about 60 percent of the victims are boys.

Is the increased attention on anti-trafficking helpful?
I think there is a danger point that trafficking has become the sexy issue. You get a huge influx of money, attention, organisations, but if that is not coordinated, it can create chaos. We have seen a lot of people coming to address this, but they’re not necessarily doing it in a collaborative manner, and they don’t necessarily understand a lot of the complex issues within the Cambodian culture, within the history.

People are led by their heart on this issue, but sometimes they forget to bring their brain with them. You get lots of well meaning people, but they don’t really know what they’re doing. And that is a huge risk factor. A lot of people start working on this issue and get paralysed by emotion. Some people may say I’m hard-headed, but what Cambodia doesn’t need is a lot of emotional wrecks. They need people who are able to strategise for responses, to support them, to help them develop policy.

Why was Chab Dai created?
The rationale behind setting up Chab Dai was this influx of well-meaning individuals and organisations. I started to say, how about we develop some kind of coalition, so we can pool our resources, so we can be more strategic. We tried to get a very diverse group of organisations – now we’ve got 57 members – but we look at the most critical piece, which is common ground and common vision. Chab Dai in Khmer means joining hands. It symbolises solidarity, that we have a voice together and that together we’re much stronger than being apart.

We’ve [also] developed a grassroots movement of advocates. We’ve got literally tens of thousands of villagers who are trained every year by volunteers [on keeping communities safe]. And that’s the dream. That’s really what we want to see happen here.

What can the average person living here do?
We have a responsibility to be the eyes and ears on the ground, and not to shut our eyes to it. There are so many ways people can begin to protect those that are vulnerable. A lot of recognising trafficking is looking at how much freedom somebody has. Girls are not in chains very often. Boys are not in chains very often. But psychological chaining is the most powerful way to control somebody. If there is somebody who is a minor, you can pretty much guarantee they are not there of their own accord. Don’t put yourself into situations of staking out a brothel or a KTV. There are professionals who can do that. But if you see somebody who’s vulnerable, there is a child helpline, there is an anti-trafficking hotline. These are positive ways you can interact. But don’t do it on your own. Contact the professionals.

How have your own perspectives evolved?
At the beginning, I thought I could understand trafficking very easily. I saw that children were being sold through a border, so that was trafficking. Now, 15 years on, I feel like I know less and less. My own learning journey is always so steep; things are changing all the time, the environment is changing. It’s blown apart my simplistic view of what trafficking was. We have to address the underlying issues if we’re ever going to see an end to it. We started working on things like family values, parenting – things that seem unconnected but [are] actually the foundation of stable communities.

Is there reason for optimism?
Absolutely. I know that [survivors] have experienced horrific things in their lives, but for those around them to lose hope does them a disservice. We need to look at where they’re going, and not just focus on where they’ve come from. We’ve seen the decline in the very young who are being exploited. We have seen prosecutions and extraditions happen here. We take what we can get. Sometimes, we don’t get much for a long time, but then when it comes, we take what we can get, and we gain hope from it.

Take action: To report suspected perpetrators, call APLE on 092 311 511; to protect young victims, call the ChildSafe Hotline on 012 311 112