Cambodia’s efforts to combat human trafficking have worsened, the US State Department said yesterday, with its most recent annual trafficking report downgrading the Kingdom for the first time since 2009.
The report, released by US Secretary of State John Kerry, slams the government for failing to make progress in holding human traffickers and child sex tourists to account, and alleges cover-ups by senior government officials.
It points to “inadequate prosecutions and sentences” and weak efforts to identify and protect victims, as well as “endemic corruption”, as reasons for the lowered ranking.
“The government did not make efforts to address trafficking-related corruption during the year, and complicity of government officials contributed to a climate of impunity for trafficking offenders and a denial of justice to victims,” it says.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith rejected the report’s findings yesterday.
“Cambodia is not behind on human trafficking, as we have been accused, because we know that it is a crime that the government cannot risk ignoring… and this is a job we work on every day,” he said.
The 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report placed Cambodia on its Tier 2 Watch List – a sub-level ranking that indicates a lack of evidence to prove the government has taken the anti-trafficking measures required for Tier 2 status.
A Tier 2 ranking, however, only means that governments are “making significant efforts” to comply with minimum anti-trafficking standards.
Cambodia had been ranked as a Tier 2 nation for the past three years, and the downgrade comes as the number of prosecuted traffickers more than halved to just 50 people in this reporting period, resulting in 44 convictions.
Opposition MP Mu Sochua said she supported the Kingdom’s downgrade.
“I wasn’t happy with [last year’s ranking], I think the US wanted to give the government a grace period, and I’m glad this year there is more of a warning. There is much to be done,” she said.
However Steve Morrish, executive director of anti-trafficking NGO SISHA, disagreed with the report’s assessment.
“I think [authorities] are trying very hard to improve the situation and I know that cooperation between the national police and the courts from SISHA’s perspective has been very, very good,” he said.
“I think that Cambodia has come a long way in the last couple of years and is doing a lot better than before … There is more willingness from police to work on exploitation and trafficking crimes.”
He added that declining prosecution figures could have a myriad of explanations beyond a waning commitment from authorities, such as a decline in traffickers or an indication that traffickers had adopted more sophisticated methods to evade better policing.
Systemic corruption has stymied anti-trafficking efforts at all levels, the report notes, with some labour recruitment firms reportedly having financial connections with senior government officials – though no evidence is given.
Sochua pointed to the large nightclubs, spas and massage parlours in Phnom Penh that act as fronts for brothels.
“Don’t tell me these are just clubs. Behind every club of that size there is an official behind, police or military . . . They cannot open without the blessing, the support and the protection of high-ranking officials,” she said.
“I think the report is correct. I think the level of poverty, the level of corruption and the level of impunity all creates a safe haven for trafficking.”
In December 2011, Eam Rattana, the former Phnom Penh anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection chief was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison for complicity in an illegal prostitution ring.
He escaped the charges and is said to remain at-large.
The TIP report also cites the plight of Cambodian domestic workers in the region, particularly those left stranded in Malaysia after the government placed a ban on maids traveling there in 2011 amid reports of abuse.
Moeun Tola, labour program head at the Community Legal Education Center, said many parents are still missing daughters who lost contact after their contracts were allowed to be extended without family approval.
“The problem is that there is no clear governance and no strong measures from the government to close those companies so the companies are just careless,” he said.
Cambodia plans to send up to 400 maids to Singapore later this year under a pilot scheme after training, and if their safety can be assured, according to the Ministry of Labour, who could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Chiv Pally, deputy director at the anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection department, denied the report’s accusations.
He pointed to the recent arrest of Taiwanese national Lin Yu Shin, 53, who was arrested in Siem Reap on charges of trafficking Cambodians onto fishing trawlers off the coast of Africa, as evidence of government action.
Lin’s company – Giant Ocean International Fishery – is estimated by CLEC to have trafficked some 1,000 Cambodians over the past few years who were lured with the promise of lucrative jobs.
Last month anti-trafficking NGOs including the International Organization for Migration told the Post that the number of Cambodian men being trafficked to work on Thai fishing vessels had exponentially increased this year.
Just yesterday, six Cambodians who were rescued after being trafficked to work as fishermen and plantations workers in Malaysia and Thailand were repatriated, with 10 other rescued workers waiting to return.
According to Tola, however, Cambodian labourers wanting to work abroad are caught in a double-bind as even when they go through legal channels, they face exploitation.
“It’s a good step to arrest the Giant Ocean owner…but there are other agencies that are recruiting people and sending them to Thailand, Malaysia and other countries and putting them into slavery-like working conditions,” he said.
Thailand was placed on the Tier 2 watch list for the fourth consecutive year and would have been relegated to Tier 3 had it not again been granted a waiver in exchange for unveiling plans that could meet anti-trafficking standards if implemented.