What freedom? Survivors of sex slavery face mental health and employment challenges due to past

By Tara Abhasakun in Bangkok

Sophia Loibl was sold into sex slavery when she was four years old.

After a family bought her, they locked her in a room and sexually enslaved her and forced her to do labour work for 22 years. She escaped by jumping out of a window when she was 26.

Ten years after her escape, Sophia still faces challenges in navigating daily life in mainstream society.

“One challenge for me, and I think some [survivors] might feel the same, is that even when I walk around outside, the memory of who you are and where you come from, what you’ve been through, is [still there]. I feel stuck, as if ‘slave’ is my identity,” she told The Culture Review Mag.

Sophia does not have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – however, she believes this might be because of the tuberculosis she contracted during her enslavement, which has impacted her memory.

In 2020, the US State Department reported 868 people in Thailand were sexually trafficked in 2019. Out of all 10 Southeast Asian countries, it lists Thailand as a “Tier 2” country, meaning that a country is not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), but is making an effort to do so. Many survivors like Sophia are Thai nationals, while others are trafficked to Thailand from abroad, for both sex and forced labour. This primarily includes neighbouring countries, such as Lao PDR, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Many survivors of sex trafficking struggle with PTSD among other mental health challenges, as well as challenges in finding employment. In a 2015 report by The Lancet Global Health on the mental health of 1102 survivors of sex and labour trafficking in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, 61.2 per cent reported depression, 42.8 per cent reported having symptoms of anxiety and 38.9 per cent reported symptoms of PSTD. Meanwhile, 5.2 per cent had attempted suicide in the past month. Statistics on the ability of survivors in finding employment after escaping the industry are hard to come by, even though some non-governmental organisation workers say that survivors face obstacles in this area.

Sometimes, survivors of sex trafficking do not understand that what had happened to them was wrong, Boom Mosby said. Mosby is the award-winning founder of The HUG Project, an anti-trafficking organisation. She said this often makes it difficult for volunteers to help them.

“With the sex trafficking victims, I have to say they are the type of victims who don’t know that they are victims,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to go to university or find a legitimate job because they’ve been in this industry such a long time, and they make so much money.”

“I just want to make sure that it is illegal, and victims still need help but it’s very challenging for the healing process. They may go through a relapse,” she said.

One caseworker for NightLight International, a business and foundation in Bangkok and the US, who is keeping her name anonymous, has seen the struggles of many survivors to reintegrate into a workforce that has changed since the time they were trafficked. 

“Even when I walk around outside, the memory of who you are and where you come from, what you’ve been through, is still there. I feel stuck, as if ‘slave’ is my identity”

Sophia Loibl, sex trafficking survivor

“We have a case we are working on with a survivor who has been out of their country for like, seven years. So, when people go back, it is hard to find employment because there’s this gap in your timeline,” she said. “People are also going back when they are older, and the job market is looking for a certain age demographic. So, we find so many people who have so much time lapsed so they can’t go back now because [they are seen as] irrelevant.”

Boom Mosby, the founder of The Hug Project, said trauma among survivors of sex trafficking often makes it difficult for volunteers to help them.

Nightlight was founded in 2005 by Annie Deiselberg. It employs female survivors of sex trafficking, as well as other women exiting the sex industry, giving them a chance to rebuild their lives. The women make jewelry and clothing, as well as baked goods.

The caseworker also said that many survivors have trust issues, especially when the person who trafficked them was someone they knew.

“If I have been trafficked by someone who is very close, then there is that trust that has been [broken]. So, one of the symptoms that shows up is that now I do not trust people,” she said.

She also said that these trust issues even impact the ability of survivors to trust the caseworkers who are trying to help them move forward. It also causes survivors sleep difficulties, and physical illness. Due to Nightlight’s relationship with organisations such as the UN’s International Organization on Migration (IOM), the caseworker said that they are usually able to find Thai-speaking doctors and psychologists who understand what trafficking survivors have been through. As time goes on, she said, many survivors open up and become more social.

“We do a repatriation plan to help them to have a business when they go back [to their home countries]. We are able to help them think in the time that we have them about what they’re going to do when they go back,” another Nightlight caseworker said.

Sophia, who now herself volunteers with various organisations fighting sex trafficking, said, “I focus on first having a relationship with survivors by building trust.”

About Tara Abhasakun

Tara Abhasakun is a freelance reporter based in Bangkok. She has interned with Southeast Asia Globe, and has also written for Prachatai English, among other publications. She mainly covers human rights, protests, and arts and culture. Tara was born in Bangkok, raised in San Francisco, and now lives in Bangkok again. She is interested in how taboo subjects are expressed in literature and art.