Women lured to China for marriage being sold on to massage parlours. Brokers arrested at the airport trying to leave the country with Cambodian women. And minors freed from guesthouses in Phnom Penh after signing up to marry strangers in China.
These types of cases have all made headlines in the Kingdom this year – some of them in recent weeks – and are examples of what authorities and some NGOs say is a concerning trend.
A number of Cambodian women, they say, are being lured by brokers to China on the promise of marriage or highly paid jobs, only to be forced into marriages they don’t expect or sold into domestic or sex slavery.
“It’s a big problem for Cambodia, and we are working hard to save our women who are being cheated,” Pol Pithey, chief of the Ministry of Interior’s anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection department, said yesterday. “Our people are still being cheated because they lack knowledge and information about what it is they are entering into – while others know – but they take the risk anyway.”
For the sister of Keo Vireak, 28, risks were not something she thought of when she approached a wedding broker earlier this year after seeing that one of her friends had found a “good husband” in China.
“But she wasn’t lucky like her friend, who married a good Chinese man,” Vireak said yesterday.
After the broker selected a husband for her, it wasn’t long before she was calling her brother back in Cambodia complaining of being beaten every day, Vireak said.
“I filed a complaint to a human rights organisation and the police to get my sister back after a broker in China demanded $3,000 for her return. I told them I did not have the money, and they sold my sister to another man.”
Vireak’s sister was returned to Cambodia last month after the arrest of an alleged broker. Such crackdowns are part of a deliberate push by police to target brokers based in Cambodia, Pithey said.
“Sometimes it is difficult for us,” he said. “The masterminds might be here, but most of the cases happen in China, and it takes time to coordinate [investigations] with authorities there.
“But we always try to spread information and educate people in the community to avoid them being cheated.”
For some, however, the prospect of a better life is a message that speaks louder.
In May, Ream Sokly, 37, was paid $500 by a broker to send her daughter, 22, to China to marry a man she had never met.
“My daughter told me that marrying a Chinese man would mean she could send us back a lot of money,” she told the Post yesterday.
“When she arrived there and told me she had a husband, I felt like I had sold her because I needed the money.”
Although violence was not an issue for her daughter, Sokly sought help from an NGO to have her return to Cambodia.
Huy Pichsovann, program officer at the Community Legal Education Center, said the cases his organisation has worked on this year involved young women who had gone to China believing they had good jobs waiting for them.
“The main problem is poverty and unemployment. The [wages] are so low here. I have not met anyone that knows in advance that they will be married,” he said. “They are promised high pay and a good job to help their family. When they arrive, they are placed in a man’s house.”
Such cases – including one reported in the Post yesterday in which two women have been forced into marriage in Shanghai – have increased this year, Pichsovann said.
“I don’t remember the exact figures, but there have been more,” he said.
When women found themselves in those situations, he added, they were frequently subjected to violence.
“It is really difficult. First, the victims often don’t know their location. They don’t speak Chinese or English,” he said.
“We ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the embassy in China for help, but I don’t think they have enough officials in the consulate.
“Also, some officials think that the victims know in advance that they will marry a Chinese person … so they have little concern.”
In April, a police raid at a guesthouse in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district helped free eight young women and teenage girls who had signed up to be married in China. Keo Thea, director of the Phnom Penh municipal Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Office, said at the time that they “faced risks that they could be trafficked into forced labour”.
Legalities around marriages between Cambodian women and foreign men have been complicated over the past five years.
In 2008, the government placed a ban on foreigners marrying Cambodian women after South Korea issued some 1,759 marriage visas here in 2007, up from just 72 in 2004, and reports of abuse were recorded.
The ban was lifted in early 2009, but in 2011, the government announced further restrictions – that prospective foreign husbands must be younger than 50 and earn more than $2,550 per month.
The restrictions were described as discriminatory by some NGOs, however Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said yesterday that those rules remained in place and had helped reduce forced marriages and exploitation.
Thea, from the municipal human trafficking department, said his officials had conducted five major crackdowns on brokers this year, but he did not know how many victims had been rescued.
Kuong said he did not know whether cases of forced marriage involving Cambodians in China had increased this year, but added that authorities had specifically targeted brokers in the Kingdom “case by case”.
“So far, the government has been arresting the brokers,” he said. “We also rescue [Cambodian women] when they have a problem in China.”
Kuong rejected suggestions that his ministry wasn’t paying close enough attention to the problem and said Cambodia was cooperating with relevant authorities in China.
But the issue remained a challenge, he said.
“Sometimes they go to China [on tourist visas] and brokers cheat them.”
A representative of the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, who was not authorised to talk about the matter, said officials had dealt with one recent case.
“We encouraged them [the victims’ family] to call the consulate in China.”
Other officials at the embassy declined to comment.