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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Anti-trafficking drive marred by claims of gang rape, robbery

Anti-trafficking drive marred by claims of gang rape, robbery

Tier 2 the hard way
Two women, one of whom is an HIV positive sex worker and the other a former prostitute, smoke cigarettes in an alleyway in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district on June 10. Organizations working with prostitutes say they applaud the US State Department’s decision to reward Cambodia’s efforts to curb human trafficking by upgrading its anti-trafficking rating. But they also warn that the government’s fight against people smuggling is unfairly targeting commercial sex workers instead of those behind rampant sexual exploitation.

The United States’ decision to upgrade Cambodia’s anti-human trafficking rating has received praise from those working to end human smuggling. But advocates for sex workers, while saying they agree with the decision, warn that authorities are failing to distinguish between those forced into sexual slavery and those they say have chosen to prostitute themselves.

Cambodia this year has been placed in Tier 2, the middle category in the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, putting it alongside countries like Chile, Angola and El Salvador, which are among the 170 countries assessed.

Since 2006, the Kingdom has languished on the Tier 2 Watch List after being relegated to the lowest category, Tier 3, in 2005.

US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said the country’s improved ranking “marks a continuing trend of sustained attention to the issue and reflects the Royal Government of Cambodia’s increased engagement in combating trafficking in persons.”

Achieving a Tier 2 ranking is an achievement “which would not have been possible without a strong commitment at the highest levels of the government,” he wrote to the Post on June 12.

For the Cambodian anti-trafficking community, Tier 2 was “definitely deserved” and due to a “marathon effort” on the part of the government, said Marielle Sander Lindstrom, chief of party of the Counter-Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) Program, which is funded by USAID and implemented by The Asia Foundation. 

The Asia Foundation works directly with the government through the national task force on human trafficking.

“I’ve never worked with a government that has been so completely engaged and impressive and has tried so hard to get a better overview of the trafficking situation,” she told the Post on June 12.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/ AFP

A former prostitute drinks a soda in a Phnom Penh slum on June 10. Cambodia climbed up the United States’ anti-human trafficking ratings this month although sex workers here say a government crackdown has been accompanied by rampant abuse by police.

The Tier 2 announcement on June 5 followed Cambodia’s passage in February of sweeping anti-trafficking legislation that resulted in what appeared to be a widespread crackdown on the country’s teeming sex industry, with authorities closing hundreds of brothels across Cambodia.

Advocates working with sex workers say they agree with Cambodia’s ascent to Tier 2, but say the government’s efforts to combat trafficking under the new legislation is unfairly targeting every prostitute, rather than only brothel owners, pimps and human traffickers.

“It is very good that Cambodia is active in combating human trafficking and I am glad about the Tier 2 ranking,” said Keo Tha, a representative of Women’s Network for Unity.

“[But] if people work voluntarily as sex workers to earn their living, they are not connected to human trafficking and the authorities should not crack down on them,” she told the Post on June 12.

Moreover, organizations working in the health sector – including UNAIDS – have expressed concerns about the public health implications of the government’s efforts to stamp out the sex industry, which they say only drives sex workers further underground and out of reach of the health care services they desperately need.

Critics claim that condom campaigns and HIV/Aids treatment and prevention programs which formerly reached hundreds of brothel-based prostitutes, have virtually collapsed since the crackdown began.

One HIV-positive sex worker, 26-year-old Mao Srey Mom, said she was denied regular access to anti-retroviral drugs for ten days after being caught up in a recent police sweep of public parks where the sex trade flourishes.

During her detention, Srey Mom – who said she was not forced into the sex trade and did not understand why she was targeted for arrest – alleges that she was threatened with gang rape and kicked hard enough to cause her to miscarry her three-month-old fetus.

Similar stories from other detained sex workers are mounting up, as is international concern over widespread reports of prostitutes being physically and sexually abused at the hands of Cambodian police.

A protest was held in New York City outside the Cambodian Mission to the UN on June 11, where activists released a statement saying that since Cambodia passed “an extremely punitive law criminalizing sex work” there have been numerous “grievous human rights violations committed against sex workers, even leading to the deaths in custody of at least three sex workers.”

No deaths of detained prostitutes have been reported in Cambodia. But numerous sex workers say they have been abused.

“We are being slapped, beaten, raped by police officers,” said Pheng Phally, team leader of the Women’s Network for Unity.

“Every time women are arrested the police take all their money and jewelry and if any girl is pretty the police gang rape them. The police and guards torture and rape us. Is this the way to protect and promote women’s value and rights?”

According to The Asia Foundation’s Lindstrom, claims that the legislation violates the rights of sex workers – what she called the “frustration on the ground” – have come about “because they (critics) don’t understand the new law.”

PHOTO SUPPLIED

Protesters gather outside the Cambodian UN Mission in New York City on June 11 to demonstrate against new anti-trafficking legislation in Cambodia.

She said the legislation “targets those who benefit from the exploitation of others” and is based on international standards.

It is possible that the discrepancy between the law’s stated aims and its apparent impact comes down to police training, according to Lindstrom, who said: “In terms of how it is being applied [the police] have not had adequate training.”

“The donor community has not focused attention on police academy training.... After four months of training [the Cambodian police are] meant to have  the same standards as international police – that’s ridiculous,” she said.

Cambodia’s top anti-trafficking police officer, Bith Kim Hong, said that police training was an urgent priority.

“Police are much in need of more training, even though in the past they have received training it is not enough, especially as we have this new anti-trafficking law to implement,” he told the Post on June 12.

Kim Hong said sex workers had yet to present any evidence of the alleged abuses by law enforcement officials and that Cambodia’s new Tier 2 ranking was a fair reflection of the Kingdom’s efforts to combat trafficking.

In the first five months of 2008, the police carried out over 100 raids, which resulted in 140 prosecutions under the new law, including the arrests of four foreigners, Kim Hong said without elaborating on the charges.

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