BANGKOK - The Thai woman had just been rescued after being exploited in Europe for sex work. But going home was the last thing on her mind. She had no money, and no ready answer for neighbours curious about her absence.
"I didn't know what to tell them because I came back empty-handed and I didn't want people to know what kind of work I did while I was away," she said. "I didn't want to be asked any questions."
She desperately needed a place to stay, but was not offered one.
Stories like hers were in the spotlight last week at the launch of a report about what happens to trafficking victims after they return home.
The rare study by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, the Nexus Institute and other partners, based on in-depth interviews with 252 victims from the Greater Mekong Subregion - Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam - showed up glaring problems that prevented them from reintegrating into society after their ordeals.
For these victims, the nightmare did not end after escape or rescue. It continued back in their home villages, in the form of greater debt, family rejection, debilitating health problems, and even threats to their safety.
More than half of respondents did not get help in their destination countries, while about one-fifth were in the same situation in their home countries. They were falling through the cracks of after-care systems that were not only under-resourced, but also, many times, too inflexible to meet their particular needs, noted the report's author Rebecca Surtees at the launch of the report in Bangkok last Monday.
Diverse forms of trafficking exist in the region: Rural children are made to beg or sell flowers in large cities; men, women and children from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are forced into sex work, domestic work, or factory or farming work in more affluent Thailand; while women from Myanmar and Vietnam are trafficked deep into China for forced marriage.
Official numbers only hint at the scale of the problem. According to the United States government's Trafficking in Persons Report, released in June, Cambodian authorities identified and referred 958 trafficking victims over the past year. Royal Thai Police figures show that there were 594 trafficking victims in the last calendar year, out of which 270 were from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and other countries.