The US State Department has removed Cambodia from a watchlist of countries judged to be making insufficient gains in fighting human trafficking, saying that the Kingdom has stepped up law enforcement and the prosecution of offenders, but noting that alarming trends continue to hamper the fight against “modern slavery”, according to a report released Monday.
The annual 2010 Trafficking in Persons report classifies Cambodia as a “Tier 2” country, one that “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” but “is making significant efforts to do so”.
“The Government of Cambodia demonstrated significant progress in law enforcement efforts against sex trafficking during the last year,” the report states.
Convictions of human trafficking offenders in Cambodia over the last year have more than tripled to 36, the report states, up from 11 in the 2009 assessment.
Last year’s report criticised Cambodia for a perceived lack of progress in convicting and punishing human-trafficking offenders – one of the key reasons the Kingdom was placed on the Tier 2 country watchlist at the time.
Despite pointing to gains, the 2010 report nonetheless warns that negative trends persist.
“Impunity, corruption and related rent-seeking behaviour continue to impede anti-trafficking efforts,” the report notes, pointing to claims that some local police and government officials are “directly or indirectly involved in trafficking”.
The report also warns that human trafficking may be exacerbated as Cambodians continue to look abroad for work.
“While there were increasing reports of Cambodian migrant workers falling victim to trafficking due to exploitative conditions in destination countries ... the government has never criminally prosecuted or convicted any labour recruiters whose companies were involved in labour trafficking,” the report states.
The official in charge of enforcing Cambodia’s efforts to curb human trafficking welcomed some of the report’s conclusions Monday, saying it was fair for the Kingdom to be grouped in the State Department’s Tier 2 category.
“Tier 2 is just for Cambodia, but we have to do more work to upgrade ourselves,” said Bith Kimhong, director of the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau.
He said he could not comment at length on the report because he had not read its contents, but that authorities have paid particular attention to the problem in the past year.
“We have worked hard to combat human trafficking because all ground- and national-level officials have cooperated well with each other,” he said.
Bith Kimhong said officials plan to focus on cross-border trafficking problems this year.
Some observers who work on trafficking issues agreed that Cambodia has made strides in the last 12 months.
“The government is more committed and dedicated to tackling this problem. It’s a big change this year,” said Samleang Seila, the country director for the group Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE).
However, serious problems remain within the judicial system, he said.
Lim Tith, the national project coordinator for the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, said protecting the victims of trafficking remains a significant challenge.
“Victims are not willing to cooperate with the law enforcement officials because of trust and time and effort spent going through the lengthy court process,” Lim Tith said. “Some of the victims fear retaliation because there is not a law to protect victims or protect witnesses.”
Pung Chhiv Kek, founder of the rights group Licadho, said the government has made “visible efforts to fight human trafficking” in the past year, including cooperating with neighbouring countries to which trafficking victims are often taken. But though the problem has been recognised at senior levels, she said not everyone on the ground is acting aggressively enough.
“This is modern slavery and should be a high priority when Cambodian citizens are involved,” Pung Chhiv Kek said.
“Unfortunately, it still happens that the official response remains tepid, when victims of trafficking are treated like illegal immigrants and while traffickers are still at large.”
Cambodia’s status in the annual US state department report has fluctuated in recent years. In 2005, it was considered a Tier 3 country – the bottom of three levels on the US state department’s scale – because it was judged not to fully comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking and was seen as “not making significant efforts to do so”.
A 2005 report from the International Labour Organisation estimated there were at least 12.3 million people subjected to forced labour worldwide. More than three-quarters were found in the Asia Pacific region.