Slavery returns to haunt the modern age
Imagine enjoying a night out at a bar with your friends. You meet a hunky soldier who promises you a fun night, buys the drinks and offers you a lift home. Instead, he drugs you, throws you in the boot of his car and smuggles you to a brothel, where you're kept as a sex slave for the next two years.
It sounds like a horrific movie scene, but this is exactly what happened to Chong Kim, a South Korean-born US citizen, who was 19 when she was taken from her hometown of Dallas, Texas.
"I had moments where I wanted to give up, I wanted to die. I would even do things on purpose so they [my captors] would kill me if I disobeyed," recalls the petite 38-year-old. "They loved torturing me, because they knew I wanted to die," she adds, saying they'd bury her in a bathtub full of ice.
Chong's traffickers – Russian members of an Albanian gang – destroyed her identification papers so she couldn't get help from the authorities. After being sold to another trafficking ring in Las Vegas, she was transported from warehouse to warehouse (often shipping containers) with 40 or 50 others. Forced abortions, rape and constant beatings became the norm.
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"To this day, I still hear screams, still see the other girls' faces. You don't forget the torture, or the look in their eyes. There's not a moment that goes by where I don't think about them. I wonder how they're doing, if they've been rescued," she adds.
Chong often thought of escaping, but the ringleaders threatened to harm her loved ones if she did. Perhaps most shocking of all is that Chong's isn't an isolated case.
Films like Taken and Slumdog Millionaire, and celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Nicole Scherzinger, who support anti-trafficking charities, have helped raise awareness of the issue, but it remains a far bigger problem than many realise. Human trafficking is the fastest growing form of international crime and the second largest illegal trade in the world after drugs and arms, with an estimated 27 million adults and 13 million child victims worldwide, with only one to two per cent of victims rescued. And it's happening in the UK, too. Home Secretary Theresa May recently vowed to clamp down on traffickers by introducing an anti-slavery law, such is the scale of the problem.
Last year alone, the UK National Referral Mechanism, which was set up in 2009 to help identify and support trafficking victims, received 1,186 referrals of potential victims, and 372 (31 per cent) of these were minors. These figures could just be the tip of the iceberg – research by UK Human Trafficking Centre in 2012 suggested that 54 per cent of victims from the previous year were not recorded by the NRM. Charlie Blythe, UK director of The A21 Campaign, an organisation dedicated to helping trafficking victims, says: "Human trafficking is an organised criminal industry that affects every nation. It generates approximately 31.6 billion US dollars each year. Trafficking for sexual exploitation generates 27.8 billion US dollars per year."
Chong adds: "You can recycle humans over and over, whereas drugs could eventually run out. People used to think of human trafficking as an Asian thing, or an Indian thing, but now they're realising it can affect anybody. It's like cancer – it will hit anyone."
She has now co-written the screenplay for a film, called Eden, a fictionalisation loosely based on her own story, and directed by Megan Griffiths. Chong says she was "positively overwhelmed" with the finished cut. The film follows Hjun Jae – renamed Eden by her captors (played by actress Jamie Chung) – rising up the ranks from captive to one of the organisation's trusted accomplices. Her new-found knowledge and skills aid her eventual escape.
"For my own escape, I had to commit crime, so we had to change some details to protect me and the other girls," Chong explains, adding that after she finally managed to escape, she was forced to stay homeless for three years, keeping under the radar.
She moved constantly so her captors wouldn't track her down. Without a Social Security number, she couldn't find a job or apply for benefits so had little choice but to sell her body again – but this time on her terms.
"People always assume the beatings and the suffering are the hardest, but the hardest part is having to make the transition from being a victim to a survivor," she says. "You get rejected by society, by families, by school, but the pimps, the traffickers and the abusers don't reject us. My family didn't want anything to do with me – they said I had tarnished the family name."
Today, Chong has come a long way since those dark days in captivity. The beatings she endured have left her with facial muscle spasms, weak knees and she can't lift her arms.
Emotionally, the scars will never heal completely. She can't sleep with the lights out and still suffers with anxiety.
But there are a lot of positives too. She has a son, and has been married for five years. Chong channels her anger into painting, music, meditation and kick-boxing, and she's now a dedicated campaigner.
"It's still a work in progress. There are things I have a hard time with. But to me, the journey of healing is a continuum and doesn't end," says Chong. "My dream is to eliminate slavery. It seems hopeless but, as long as I'm alive, I will keep fighting, educating and talking."