Sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia has become a vital link in Southeast
Asia's human trafficking network. In part two of a series, Liam Cochrane looks at
the major flows of trafficked people from, through and into Cambodia.
Each day several teenage Vietnamese girls cross this border at Chrey Thom, locals say. With the Tonle Bassac running parallel to a good quality road, this is just one route used to traffic people into Cambodia and throughout the region.
On April 5, King Norodom Sihanouk posted a message on his website urging Cambodian
mothers to protect their children from being trafficked around the region.
"Avoid the deceit of dishonest people's poisonous consoling and sweet words
before letting your daughters work or be wives in Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, etc,"
the King wrote.
When a girl can be "bought" for $250 and trafficked across an international
border for a bribe as small as $12.50, parents would do well to listen to their King.
It is thought that one third of global trafficking, or up to 225,000 women and children,
are trafficked from Southeast Asia, with 60 per cent of those going to another major
city in the region.
No one knows for sure how many people are victims of trafficking, as most statistics
are estimates taken from a limited empirical base, but nobody doubts the problem
is widespread and devastating to the victims.
NGOs working on the issue categorize trafficking countries by the role they play
in the process and Cambodia is considered a "sender", "transit"
and "receiver" of trafficking victims.
One of the major concerns for human rights groups is Cambodia's role as a regional
thoroughfare between Vietnam and the lucrative "people markets" of Thailand
Pierre Legros, regional coordinator of NGO Afesip, estimates more Vietnamese girls
are trafficked through Cambodia than Cambodian girls out of the country. This is
due to a preference for light-skinned girls in the brothels of Malaysia and Thailand,
Most of these trafficking victims are lured from their homes in the poor Vietnamese
provinces of Chau Doc, Sok Chan and Ang Giang with promises of good jobs or marriage
and are brought to the regional hub of Chau Doc.
There, says Legros, they become part of a well-connected Vietnamese organized crime
syndicate that transports a relatively small number of them into Cambodia to work
in the sex industries of Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap and Kampong Cham, while
most are trafficked through Cambodia to brothels in southern Thailand and Malaysia.
River and road border crossings in southern Cambodia offer a way in (see case study
of Chrey Thom), while Sihanoukville, Koh Kong and Poipet are often used as exit points.
To a lesser extent people are trafficked into Thailand at Pailin and various smaller
scale crossing points - the pores of the Cambodia's oft-mentioned "porous border'.
With a sex industry reputed to be worth millions of baht, Thailand is a huge market
for human traffickers.
Legros says brothels along the southern coastline of Thailand, from the border with
Cambodia right down the peninsula to Malaysia, and on the islands of south Thailand
are common destinations for Vietnamese and Cambodian girls.
Traffickers taking advantage of corruption along the borders often follow behind
the girls to make sure they arrive at their destination, says Legros.
"Fifteen different transports, fifteen different people and the same Vietnamese
behind ... in fact you see the same people from, let's say, Ho Chi Minh to Kuala
Lumpur passing the border without papers, supervising the trafficking, paying. This
is organized crime," Legros says.
He says the increasing sophistication of traffickers was a worrying development,
a point noted in last year's US State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
"Human traffickers are often highly successful because of links with other transnational
criminal groups such as arms dealers, drug traffickers, and car theft rings, which
provide them with safe and tested routes, access to cash, forged documents, and officials
to bribe," the report said.
The issue of Cambodian women being trafficked and exploited in Malaysia hit the headlines
in January when three young women were repatriated after being trafficked into the
Malaysian sex industry.
The Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC) has been working closely on the issue
and director Oung Chanthol says that "hundreds" of Cambodian women trafficked
into the country are now imprisoned for immigration breaches.
Many more find themselves in prisons of a different kind. A fact-finding visit in
December last year found about 100 girls trapped in just one karaoke parlor, used
as a front for prostitution, Chanthol said on April 7.
Only a small number of women coerced into prostitution get as far as Kuala Lumpur,
says Christian Guth, a French advisor to the Ministry of Interior's Anti-Trafficking
and Juvenile Exploitation department. Most travel by road down the peninsula of southern
Thailand and end up in brothels either side of the border with Malaysia.
As well as prostitution, many Cambodians are trafficked to Malaysia to labor on plantations
or as domestic workers, Chanthol says.
While a lot of maids work in Malaysia illegally, she says, those who do go legally
through companies approved by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training
and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSALVY), deserve more protection and support.
"I think maybe the Ministry should provide clear pre-departure information about
what they can do if their rights are abused," says Chanthol, adding that each
worker should be regularly monitored to make sure labor companies stay true to their
She is optimistic that cooperation between MoSALVY, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
embassies in both countries and NGOs can start to repatriate more Cambodian trafficking
victims and work to stem the flow of people being exploited in Malaysia.
Cambodia's northern neighbor is notably absent in most discussions of regional trafficking,
but experts say this is changing fast.
Christian Guth says there is some evidence of Lao girls working in Thai brothels
and another source noted a small amount of trafficking with China.
While Laos may not have a huge role in regional trafficking right now, as a poor
country locked in the middle of what one government advisor described as a "dynamic
industry", the potential is there. The risk is increased, Guth says, because
channels of smuggling have already been established to transport drugs from the country;
channels that could be adapted to traffick people.
"I would advise Laos to take measures very fast," Guth says, adding that
once networks are established it would be much harder about to make inroads into
It has already started with the formation of the Laos Anti-Trafficking Protection
Unit, that brings together immigration officials, prosecutors and the Laos Women's
union in an effort to curb the problem before it takes hold.
While Laos can look to Thailand and Cambodia for a multitude of models for dealing
with their emerging problem, experts say the whole region must pull together and
address the vast, complex and pressing issue of human trafficking.
Case study: Chrey Thom
Chrey Thom is a small town on Cambodia's southern border with Vietnam, little more
than a few houses and street stalls leading to a boom gate. But it is also a significant
gateway for human traffickers, whose business props up a thriving secret industry.
Residents say that every day teenage Vietnamese girls cross the border in taxis.
Several different sources agreed on February 27 that 20,000 dong ($12.50) per girl
was the standard bribe for low level officials. The same amount was quoted by a local
brothel owner as what she paid each month to police for operating her business.
Pierre Legros says that traffickers often use boats to transport girls from Vietnam
to Phnom Penh, up the Tonle Bassac.
"But it depends on the situation, If they see that police are going to make
arrests and control more on boats, they know it [and] switch to taxis; if there is
a barrage on the roads they switch to boats,"
The number of girls crossing into Cambodia at Chrey Thom is difficult to determine.
Some residents estimated an average of two to three each day, others said four to
The Post spoke to a policeman in civilian clothes at the Chrey Thom headquarters
whom we had been directed to by border police and asked him if there was any trafficking
of young Vietnamese girls across this border.
"None at all," he said.
When the Post proposed that this was one of the major people smuggling border towns
in the country, the interview was quickly ended. He refused to give his name.
"The police themselves are the traffickers," said Mr Phoon, a local worker
who did not want to give his full name but said he knew a man who acted as a broker
for trafficking deals in Chrey Thom.
Phoon introduced our translator to a 35-year-old broker who would not give his name
but said he had three girls waiting across the border in Vietnam, available for $250
each. The broker said there were conditions attached to selling the girls but would
not elaborate on these conditions, suggesting an evening meeting to discuss the deal
The Post did not attend the meeting but Phoon said the standard procedure was for
the buyer to meet the broker, girl and translator in a Phnom Penh guesthouse to complete