Behind the bright lights of Cambodia’s city streets

Josh Mellor, a 28-year-old videographer at global anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice recounts his experiences of a recent trip to Phnom Penh. He hopes to raise awareness of the dark reality of the city’s sex trade and is calling on readers to take action to help these women – real women – many of whom have been trafficked into the country, and feel they have no means of escape.

Walking through the streets of Cambodia’s capital at night, I saw one of the most harrowing scenes I had ever laid eyes on. I knew it would be heavy and emotional. But nothing could have prepared me for what I was faced with.

The noise levels ramped up as we turned the next corner; it was like being inside a busy club on a night out in the UK. I could hear the voices of women, soliciting, offering services. It was a full assault on the senses. We made our way through the crowds of people who had descended on Phnom Penh’s red light district. It was about 11pm and it seemed the night was just getting started.

There were dozens of bars on either side of the street. There were bright lights and colourful signs inviting people inside the various establishments. There were mirrors where women were putting on their make-up. And there were dozens upon dozens of young women, including transgender people, fixated on one thing: selling themselves.

Trying to block out the noise, I began to hone in on some of their faces. It was as though everything on the outside was very animated. But when you looked closer their expressions were so vacant. It was like they were saying “This is what I am programmed to do.” It was like they were on autopilot. There was a sense of “This is all I know and this is all I will ever know.” It was a sense of never-ending turmoil.

We often report on the statistics of modern slavery but the figures can remove you from the reality of what these women are actually enduring on a daily basis. I saw about 500 women that night. But rather than seeing the statistics I got a glimpse of the unique identities of each of those individuals.

The visit made me feel sick to my stomach; seeing how these women are treated, as if they are commodities, and the look of hopelessness in their eyes, as if there were no alternative. It woke me up. It reminded me again of why I do what I do. It brought perspective. These are real people who are living this nightmare every single day, and we have a responsibility to reach out to them in their darkest hour of need.

Hope for Justice exists to bring an end to modern slavery – for good. That involves standing up against injustice, freeing the captives, providing restorative care for the victims of this barbaric crime, and working to bring about change in society. With your help we can – and we will – see an end to this. Please consider supporting us in our mission.