IN the early 1990s, the end of the Cold War and the globalisation of economic activities engendered important movements of people from the third world to western European countries, the US, and other developed nations.
The western world, concerned about security, the protection of its labor markets and cultural values, and the growth of the prostitution industry engaged in an increasingly intensified campaign against illegal migrations and those who facilitated them: human smugglers.
During the same period, governments and civil societies in the west, particularly in the US, “discovered” a related but even more alarming threat to humanity and the global order: human trafficking. This new “social disease,” likened to “modern-day slavery,” was reminiscent of the old “white slave trade” that had panicked the west at the beginning of the 20th century.
Human trafficking has been presented as a transnational enterprise controlled by organized crime, which enslaves 12.3 million people, generates US$32 billion in profit for human traffickers annually, and poses a serious threat to national and global security.
These alarming claims have not been supported by empirical research on human trafficking or studies on human traffickers; yet, the world, and with it Cambodia, has been called to wage a “war on human trafficking”.
Since 2001, the US State Department has published its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which unilaterally categorises countries in three tiers, according to their anti-trafficking efforts.
Although the TIP report is questionable in many respects, particularly its non-transparent methodology and political nature, it is a powerful tool that the US uses to engage other countries in its proxy war on human trafficking.
Through its hegemonic power, the US is able to pressure other countries, especially those receiving its foreign assistance, to take serious action on human trafficking, such as severely penalising trafficking offences. Bowing to such pressure from the US, Cambodia’s 2008 anti-trafficking law punishes trafficking offences as severely as premeditated murder.
Although the TIP report has rightly observed irregularities in the enforcement of the 2008 Law by the Cambodian police and judiciary, it complains that there has been too few convictions for human trafficking in Cambodia.
As part of my doctoral research, I interviewed, among others, 91 individuals incarcerated for human trafficking in eight Cambodian prisons. Incarcerated traffickers in Cambodia are poor, uneducated individuals, and 80 percent of them are women.
Their activities are unsophisticated and conducted by sole operators or small casual networks. Pushed by a lack of legitimate opportunities and pulled by the presence of illegitimate opportunities, to survive they engage in trafficking for very modest gains.
Caught in a corrupt criminal justice system (CJS), they serve long prison sentences and as many as two-thirds of them are probably the victims of miscarriages of justice. This harsh law, that has been poorly publicised and is enforced by a weak CJS, does not deter potential traffickers but produces serious unintended consequences.
The law has turned into an instrument of corruption and injustice against the powerless. What is required to address human trafficking in Cambodia is not more law and punishment but education, training, and work that provide Cambodians with legitimate opportunities to survive.
Chenda Keo is a researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security of the Australian National University.