Endemic poverty and porous borders make Southeast Asia a center for the trade in human lives. The United Nations says as many as 200,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked each year in the region, most forced into servitude and the sex trade. Aid agencies say better law enforcement, improved economic conditions and new attention to the rights of women are key to stemming the trade.
Cambodian Chan Dyna was just 16 and working as a domestic servant when she was lured out of Phnom Penh. She found herself forced into the sex industry in northern Cambodia. "I continued to work as a sex worker in Stung Treng for a while," she recalled. "After about two years I came back to Phnom Penh. From Phnom Penh I was trafficked into the brothel in Battambang for many months before I could manage to get out again and come back to Phnom Penh."
For Chan Dyna, now 29, her hopes of a job as an artist were lost when she was tricked into the sex industry. Now, with few other income opportunities, she is resigned to a life of a prostitute.
Women's rights groups say basic economic and social programs to reduce poverty, promote education and address social dislocation are needed to give women like Chan Dyna new hope.
A recent United Nations conference in Bangkok also called for measures to bridge the equality gap between the sexes to help fight the sexual trafficking of women and children. Fundamental economic assistance is required, says Christine Beddoe, a program manager for the Australian child rights group, Childwise.
"Until we really see strong measures to provide both support, in terms of financial support, increased development aid to some of these countries, we're always going to have a big problem with kids living in poverty, kids being marginalized because of a lack of education and certain cultural practices," she said.
A recent United States report says nearly three quarters of a million people are trafficked each year. Other estimates say as many as two million people a year are caught in what many people call the trade in human suffering.
In Southeast Asia, including southern China, as many as 200,000 women and children are caught in the trade each year. Thailand and Malaysia are both destinations and transit countries for regional trafficking.
Legal experts say that traditionally, trafficking into Thailand has been from southern China, Laos, Cambodia and Burma. Women and children are lured to work in the sex trade or as cheap labor in factories and illegal businesses.
Monika Peruffo, an advocacy officer with the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, says more must be done to improve job opportunities for women and children in their home countries. Some trafficking victims, when rescued, come home to find themselves worse off than before.
"When a person comes back home how do you suppose the situation is going to be different if [the government] doesn't even work on the economic, political, social [and] cultural situation," she said.
Child rights workers say children in the Philippines are frequently taken out of the country, particularly into Malaysia, and then forced into the sex trade. Workers with the child rights network called ECPAT say while the Philippine government has laws against trafficking children, enforcement is poor.
Anjanette Saguisag, an ECPAT officer from the Philippines, says there are no real efforts to crack down on the trade, saying "I think the national government has failed to bring it to the local government officials, or call to the local officials about this policy."
Some women, once in the sex trade, decide they want to stay there. Aid workers say those women, trying to make the best of a bad situation, have additional concerns.
Sex workers want a halt to police harassment and violence against women in the sex industry, says Sereyphal Kien of the Cambodian Women's Development Association. "The objective is to reduce all forms of violations against sex workers," she notes. "So what we try to achieve is to try to empower our women and to educate the public opinion, or general public, of the problems that we face."
The Cambodian women also want to halt abuses from brothel owners and clients, who often beat prostitutes or cheat them of money.
But the United Nations warns that over the long term, the threat of trafficking will remain as long as people are vulnerable to chronic unemployment and poverty.