Thousands of Thai women are "trafficked" every year into Japan, where many of them endure slavery-like conditions in the Japanese sex industry, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

According to the 227-page report, "Owed Justice: Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan," the women are typically promised lucrative jobs by traffickers in Thailand, but arrive in Japan to find themselves trapped in "debt." To repay these exorbitant sums - usually US$25,000 to US$40,000 - they must work for months, or even years, without pay, under highly coercive and abusive conditions.

Japanese officials have publicly expressed their concern for the victims of trafficking. But over the course of a six-year investigation in both Japan and Thailand, Human Rights Watch found that the Japanese government has taken no concrete steps to stamp out the practice.

"If the Japanese government is so 'concerned' about the problem, it should do something for the victims instead of just talking about it," said Regan Ralph, Executive Director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "It is high time to stop the rhetoric and start some serious law enforcement."

The report says that employers decide when a debt is paid, and until then, they control the women's movements both on and off the job. Some women told Human Rights Watch researchers that they had been "sold like cattle" and described video cameras and motion-sensitive lights that monitored their movements at work and at home.

In most cases, trafficked women are compelled to work off their alleged debts as bar "hostesses" who accompany clients to nearby hotels to perform sexual services. Given the coercive conditions of their employment, the women cannot refuse clients who are physically abusive, nor can they negotiate safer sex or get access to medical care without their employers' permission. The report says that some women were also beaten by their employers for "disobeying" orders.

Some women escape, but most endure these hardships until their employers release them. Most of them do not speak Japanese. They have had their passports confiscated by their employers, and have been threatened with violence if they try to flee.

"It's not hard to see why these women are reluctant to seek assistance from authorities," said Ralph. "They know that as 'illegal aliens' and 'prostitutes,' the best treatment they can hope for is summary deportation, while authorities turn a blind eye toward the abuses they've suffered at the hands of their traffickers."

The Thai government has undertaken significant efforts to prevent trafficking and provide services to victims. But the Human Rights Watch report says that the enforcement of Thai laws and policies against trafficking has been weak, and, in some cases, has resulted in violations of women's right to freedom of movement and travel. The assistance for victims does not include any effort to facilitate trafficked women's access to justice in Japan. And while the Thai government helps repatriate women who can demonstrate Thai citizenship, other women are left stranded in Japan, living in legal limbo and separated indefinitely from their families and friends.

The report notes that both the Japanese and Thai governments are participating in the drafting of a United Nations anti-trafficking protocol that will influence governments' response to trafficking in persons worldwide. Key provisions that will determine the nature of that response remain under dispute. The negotiations resume next month, and Human Rights Watch calls on the Japanese and Thai governments, as well as all other participating states, to ensure that the protocol includes strong provisions for the protection of the human rights and physical safety of trafficking victims.