Thursday, October 29, 2009
Oct 28, 2009
Bangkok/Phnom Penh - When it comes to attracting a potential spouse, South Korean soap operas seem to be the best way to a South- East Asian bride's heart.
Over the last decade, thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian women have left their homes to marry South Korean husbands, lured into dubious unions by dreams of financial security and glitzy, city lifestyles in a modern Asian nation.
Cambodia, alarmed by a report that 1,760 Cambodian women had left the country in 2007 for brokered marriages in South Korea, slapped a ban on all marriages to foreigners in April 2008, lifting it only in December after putting in place restrictions on the nuptials trade.
'Korean men have demographic problems in their own country, particularly in finding wives for rural men who are mainly from the lower-income groups,' said John McGeoghan, a human-trafficking expert for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Cambodia.
'In the marketing of this exercise, the Cambodian women are looking at Korean soap operas and thinking they're going to a glamorous life.'
It was an IOM report on the exodus of Cambodian brides that sparked Phnom Penh's eight-month foreign marriage ban.
There might be nothing wrong in principle with impoverished women from rural Cambodia or Vietnam choosing to migrate through marriage to South Korea, an industrialized, high-tech country with a rapidly greying population and a lack of womenfolk on the farms.
But the Asian foreign brides business has been a source of disillusionment and outright abuses.
'Part of the reason this is an issue is because it's broker arranged, so they come in and two guys might see 100 Vietnamese girls, and they chose the one they like and are encouraged to sleep with the woman that night,' said Andrew Bruce, IOM's Bangkok-based regional representative for South-East Asia.
IOM estimates that some 100,000 Vietnamese women have been brokered to Taiwanese husbands over the last decade. There are some 170,000 brides from mainland China in Taiwan, according to government figures, though the real figure may be closer to 270,000, according to non-government estimates.
South Korea, where brokers formerly recruited wives from rural north-east China, has switched to Vietnamese brides, with about 12,000 arriving every year.
It is big business. A broker charges each would-be husband 5,000- 20,000 dollars for a foreign bride, arranging the introductions, marriages, and processing the visa and passport for the newlywed.
'There was a Vietnamese woman who wanted to get out of it, once the husband had left, and she was told she had to pay all the fees, amounting to 6,000 dollars, and of course she had no money,' IOM's Bruce said.
In Taiwan, there are stories of Vietnamese 'brides' being used as maids by their new mothers-in-law or shared among several brothers as common chattel.
Alarmed by the horror stories, the Taiwan government has tightened up on immigration controls on Vietnamese women, making it more difficult for them to acquire citizenship.
In South Korea, where four in every 10 marriages in rural areas are cross-cultural, the government has commissioned the Women Migrants Human Rights Centre to run 24-hour emergency help lines for foreign brides in six languages.
Divorces among cross-cultural couples in South Korea have increased from 4,171 in 2003 to 11,225 in 2008, one indication that the soap operas might not be painting an accurate picture of rural lifestyles.
In Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, the IOM has set up orientation programmes for foreign brides awaiting their visas, informing them of their legal rights and providing them with a smattering of cultural and linguistic preparation for their future marriages.
'These women need information about Korea,' IOM's McGeoghan said. 'They need to know they're not going to be leading glamorous lives, that sometimes in Korean culture they won't be allowed out of the home or get pocket money.'
But IOM regional representative Bruce acknowledged that the programme is more damage control than a solution for the abuses inherit in the marriage trade, which is likely to continue as long as poverty is rampant in the countrysides of Cambodia and Vietnam.
As in all marriages, there is both good and bad.
'On the one hand, these women are open to abuse, and they are almost being bought and sold,' Bruce said. 'But, on the other hand, the women also earn power, because they have an opportunity then to send money home and become far more important in their own families.'