To get his teenage daughter and niece on a plane yesterday after 10 months of alleged abuse and forced marriages in China, Kim Vicheat* said he had to bury his family in debt because the Cambodian consulate refused to fund their repatriation.
The two 19-year-olds told The Phnom Penh Post by phone last week that they had been trafficked in October to Shanghai, where they were each forced into marrying three times.
After fleeing abusive in-laws, the girls sought help from the Cambodian consulate, only to allegedly become the latest in a series of victims to encounter a lack of support from the overseas diplomats. The girls, both pregnant, said they were forced to sleep on the street and beg for food after the only assistance they were offered was with paperwork.
“I had to borrow someone else’s money, $800, to pay for the flights,” said Vicheat, a farmer in Kandal province. “I had no choice, I couldn’t keep them waiting like that.”
The Cambodian Embassy in Beijing last week told the Post it lacks a budget to pay for the women’s flights home, so the victims must drum up their airfare. But the trafficking victims, most of whom come from poor families and are deprived of any savings during their forced marriages, end up having to borrow the sum, driving them further into debt-bondage and making them vulnerable to re-trafficking, rights group Adhoc says.
Cambodia has consistently been singled out for such instances of inadequate embassy assistance that can further jeopardise trafficking victims. In its 2014 trafficking report released earlier this year, the US State Department called out Cambodian overseas missions’ failure to assist trafficking victims abroad as one of the central factors resulting in its low ranking.
“Compared with other countries in the region, [the] Cambodian government has not made reasonable efforts to help their own citizens and prevent trafficking,” said Xin Ren, a professor of criminal justice in California and an expert on bride trafficking to China.
While China has signed agreements with Vietnam and Thailand to repatriate victims of human trafficking, “Cambodian leaders have not reached out to China to achieve such a collaborative agreement,” Ren said.
According to Adhoc, which intervened on behalf of the 19-year-olds, it’s not uncommon for Cambodian women trafficked as brides to China to have to wait up to two months for government assistance in leaving the country. And in the interim, the women are often at the mercy of strangers.
“Some are allowed to stay in the embassy, but many have to go back to their husbands if they want shelter. Those who are afraid [of returning to their husband] either turn to the street where Chinese citizens will give them food or cash, or they hide in the bamboo forests,” said Chhan Sokunthea, head of Adhoc’s women and children section.
“It is a long, slow process from when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gets in touch with the embassy and then the consulate supplies legal documentation for their return.”
Earlier this month Cambodia requested that China stop issuing visas to single Cambodian women in an effort to curb the trafficking problem.
Spokesmen from the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on Friday about whether the appeal was being considered or would be included in a memorandum of understanding being drafted to address the ongoing trafficking issues.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said yesterday that the Cambodian missions abroad do their best to “take care of the [trafficking] victims and solve their problems”, but are only responsible for providing “legal assistance”.
Kuong added that the timeline between a trafficked woman’s request for consular assistance in China and her repatriation has to do with Chinese laws.
“If they have a marriage certificate and want to come back, they have to get a divorce first, and to do that, the Chinese officials need them first to go back to the provinces where they were living to verify no crimes were committed,” Kuong said, though he declined to elaborate on what kind of crimes the women had to prove themselves innocent of. “It’s not our requirement, it’s Chinese law.”