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Mixed messages on trafficking

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Domestic migrant workers, some of whom are suspected of being under age, are processed in Phnom Penh this month.

Less than a month after a United States congressman blasted the Cambodian government for its “egregious human trafficking record” and “rampant corruption”, a State Department official has promoted the Kingdom as an example of improved governmental efforts to combat human trafficking in the East Asia region.

Speaking last Thursday before a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs sub-committee, Joe Yun, deputy assistant secretary of state within the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said Cambodia was an example of increased human trafficking convictions and prosecutions in the region.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia has given increased priority to TIP [trafficking in persons]-related cases within its judicial system,” he said, explaining that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court had “reportedly” tried 118 trafficking-in- persons cases during the first nine months of 2011, compared with 116 in all of 2010.

However, in stark contrast to Yun’s statement, the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, released in June, said:  “The Government of Cambodia did not demonstrate progress in law enforcement efforts against trafficking crimes during the year.”

Yun’s testimony comes just weeks after Congressman Ed Royce, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added an amendment to a House bill stating that “the measures taken by the Government of Cambodia are insufficient in addressing the scope of Cambodia’s human trafficking problem.”

Royce’s amendment calls for Cambodia to be reclassified as a Tier 3 country, the lowest category on the State Department’s human traff-icking ranking.

Yun’s testimony also lauded Cambodia for  “working to expand protections to domestic workers”, pointing to a recent order banning recruitment agencies from sending domestic workers to Malaysia.

Despite Yun’s optimistic assessment, many officials in the Kingdom remain critical.

“Statements like these are not helpful,” opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said yesterday. “It’s not beneficial to try to cover up the situation and act like it’s not a big deal when it is.”

Recent media reports have revealed dubious connections between the Ministry of Labour and the firms themselves.

The owners of at least four agencies – Mey Yorn Services Co Ltd, SKMM Investment Group, Ung Rithy Group Co Ltd. and Human Resources Development – have been found to have familial ties with officials from the Ministry of Labour and the National Police.

Eric Meldrum, operations director of South East Asian Investigations in Social and Humanitarian Activities, an anti-human trafficking organisation, acknowledged the government’s recent measures to combat labour trafficking, but lamented the fact that it had taken so long.

“Prosecutions could have, and should have, started a lot earlier than a couple of months ago,” Meldrum said.  “If they had, it would have been easier to regulate these agencies now and it would not have gotten to this bad a state, with so many abuses occurring.”

Officials from the Ministry of Labour and the US embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached yesterday.

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