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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Through the Looking Glass: sex trafficking and justice

Through the Looking Glass: sex trafficking and justice

Three girls arrested as illegal immigrants but later released rest at an NGO shelter.

At a trauma recovery shelter in Phnom Penh's Tuol Kork district, a heavy punch bag

hangs in the courtyard.

The center manager explains his residents are sometimes so overcome by anger they

become violent and destroy their possessions or try to harm themselves. The punch

bag provides an outlet for their frustrations.

The shelter is home to 33 young girls, Cambodians and Vietnamese, all of whom are

victims of sex trafficking or rape. The youngest is just eight. Although she had

been there for a week when the Post visited, she was still too traumatized to talk.

Similar centers are found throughout Tuol Kork and elsewhere in Phnom Penh. Girls

who have been sold for their virginity or forced to become sex workers are rescued

and provided with a safe haven, psychological counseling, food, skills training,

sports activities and schooling. Slowly they recover and their anger subsides.

In the past few weeks police have 'rescued' two more groups of Vietnamese girls as

trafficking victims. Yet instead of finding themselves in shelters receiving counseling,

the girls are currently in jail awaiting trial for illegal immigration. The brothel

owners and those who trafficked them remain free and have not been charged.

In May, 14 Vietnamese girls who were 'rescued' by the anti-trafficking police during

raids on Tuol Kork brothels were sent to a shelter run by NGO AFESIP. On June 20

the same police unit then arrested 14 of them on the charge of illegal immigration.

Eleven of the girls remain in Prey Sar prison and will go to trial August 5. The

trafficking investigations are being done separately.

And three weeks later, 21 girls were taken into custody when the Foreign Police division

raided a Daun Penh guest house which they say was operating as a brothel. The 14

girls who were determined to be over 17 were also arrested on the charge of illegal

immigration and are now in Prey Sar prison.

The jailing of the 25 prompted outrage from human rights and children's NGOs, UNICEF,

the International Organization for Migration (IOM), diplomats, the Ministry of Women's

and Veterans' Affairs, and even the anti-trafficking police.

The organizations say Cambodia's 1996 anti-trafficking law protects the victims of

trafficking regardless of their ages, and NGOs have the right to take care of such

victims by providing legal protection and safe shelter. NGOs say this is the first

time the immigration law has been used to arrest trafficking victims.

"The immigration law has been passed for many years but not used and now they

start by using it with small girls," says Chanthol Oung, executive director

of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC).

"It worries me that [the girls] will end up in jail. Which is worse - jail or

brothel? I think jail. Brothels might be better than prison in terms of food, clothing

and sleeping places."

As far back as anyone in Phnom Penh can remember, victims of sex trafficking from

Thailand, Vietnam and other countries have either been formally repatriated through

IOM or entrusted to NGOs who send them home through informal channels.

Speculation abounds over the apparently sudden shift in government policy. Several

observers believe the arrests are linked to the current census of foreigners in Phnom

Penh in an attempt by the government to capitalize on anti-Vietnamese sentiment in

the lead up to the 2003 general election.

One western observer, who would not be named, points to the vulnerability of those

being charged.

"These girls have three strikes against them - they are women, they are Vietnamese

and prostitutes," he says. "So they are an easy target, and maybe are being

exploited for election campaign reasons."

Nup Sophon is the deputy chief of the Municipal Court and will preside over the first

illegal immigration case. He denies the government's policy has changed, saying the

arrests have nothing to do with the census.

"This is not linked [to the recent immigration census], because immigration

law has been put in practice for many years," he says.

And much to the surprise of NGOs and the police, Sophon claims the courts have tried

to implement immigration laws for years, but in all previous cases the Vietnamese

sex workers did not answer questions about immigration so the courts were forced

to set them free.

"When these girls in both cases were arrested they said they were Vietnamese

and had no visas or passports," Sophon says. "They were illegal [immigrants]

so the prosecutor charged them with illegal entry and they were detained according

to immigration law, not the anti-trafficking law."

However even he admits that, "Even the Ministry of Interior (MoI) wonders why

the courts just do it now."

There is evident tension between the courts and the police over the charges. Keo

Sun, assistant to the anti-trafficking project manager at the MoI, whose police carry

out many brothel raids with the help of NGOs, says he is very unhappy the girls have

been charged.

"Our project is to help the victims to have a better life," he says. "The

police did not understand why the courts have charged them. It is the idea of the

court - the police's duty is to rescue the girls. We want to help these ladies regardless

of if they are from Vietnam or another country."

The Post met with both judges, Sophon and Judge Bunary who will investigate the first

trafficking case. Both admit the girls are victims of trafficking.

"The court sees that they are really victims of prostitution and sex trafficking

because the brothel owners take advantage of them," says Bunary. "Cambodian

law opposes sex exploitation but their entry is illegal - that is why the court must

punish them."

Yet Caroline Bakker, child protection officer with the UN's children's agency UNICEF,

says the court's stance contradicts protocols that Cambodia has signed.

"This is against the UN international human rights instruments Cambodia has

signed which say that states shall protect the rights of trafficked people not withstanding

any irregular immigration status," she says. "[The courts] should call

a halt on any other charges as long as the trafficking case has not been clarified."

UNICEF has worked with NGOs and the MoI since 2000 to implement the Law Enforcement

Against Sexual Exploitation of Children Project. It provides technical and financial

support to the ministry's department of anti-trafficking and juvenile protection,

which carries out many of the raids.

Bakker says the police are making a good attempt to enforce the law and agrees with

the MoI's Keo Sun that immigration charges may have a big impact on the ability of

victims to speak out, and consequently on future brothel raids.

Trafficking victim Srey Oun studies for a new life at an NGO shelter in Tuol Kork.

Sun's concern is that Vietnamese girls will no longer complain for fear they will

be charged with illegal immigration.

"In a lot of cases the parents come to the police and say their children have

been trafficked," he says. "When we rescue them and then the court puts

a charge on their daughter, will they dare to complain again?"

As to the question of what is being done to arrest the traffickers, brothel owners

and pimps who have trapped thousands of young men and women into sex slavery in Cambodia,

Judge Bunary says they are trying hard but have so far been very unsuccessful.

"The government is working to crack down on traffickers but they just run away,"

she says. "They are not arrested. We don't know how they learn that we will

raid the brothels."

Observers says the problem of endemic corruption within Cambodia's courts combined

with poor law enforcement has given traffickers a free rein to use the country as

a base for regional and international trafficking networks.

AFESIP's coordinator Sao Chhoeurth says judges and law enforcers do not respect the

anti-trafficking law.

"Even if we have 1,000 more laws, if there is no implementation we cannot protect

the whole society," he says. As for the current cases, Chhoeurth questions how

trafficking charges can be laid if the only evidence the courts have - the girls

- are found to be illegal immigrants and deported.

Yim Po, director of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights

(CCPCR), agrees law enforcement is severely lacking.

"Now the government has the intention to raid the brothel and karaoke [parlors]

and rescue the sex workers," he says. "But the problem is police cannot

arrest brothel owners because they are involved with corrupt government officials

and are protected. The implementation of the law is low - the police arrest the victims,

not the perpetrators."

It is clear that a new draft trafficking law, which the Ministry of Justice has drawn

up with technical assistance from UNICEF, is much needed. For example, the crime

of debauchery carries a prison term of up to 20 years, but the term itself is not

defined in law.

In a bid to resolve some of these concerns, the government will hold two rounds of

consultations on the draft with key stakeholders later this month. NGOs complain

that the legislation is full of gaps.

IOM's project coordinator Lourdes Autencio says a lack of implementing guidelines

in the law means that, for instance, search warrants are not issued on weekends,

public holidays or after 6 p.m.

"Several women were recently referred to us who apparently had been trafficked

to Cambodia from Romania," says Autencio of one case, "but we were unable

to obtain a search warrant [that weekend] and had to leave them in potentially great

risk at the brothel."

UNICEF's Bakker says the government needs to adopt UN protocols into local legislation

and revise domestic laws to bring them in line with international instruments. That,

she says, will cut down on the prevalent legislative confusion.

Cambodia has also nearly finalized a Memorandum of Understanding with Thailand on

cross-border cooperation to prevent trafficking and to assist victims, and talks

recently started with the Vietnamese government to introduce a similar document.

Finally, there is widespread acceptance that the court system needs to be strengthened.

NGOs say jud-ges urgently need training so they can properly interview traumatized

victims of sex trafficking.

They say many girls have been sold by their parents and are pressured into defending

them by saying they volunteered to work at brothels. Some girls are too afraid of

the brothel owners to reveal their identities.

"The courts only met the girls once and then they send them to jail," says

AFESIP's Chhoeurth. "They do not have the skills to talk to the victims about

this."

He says AFESIP has taken care of more than 1,000 victims of sex trafficking since

its doors opened in 1997. The numbers, the NGO says, are increasing, and the victims

are getting younger.

But until the government, NGOs and others agree on a common standard to deal with

the problem, those running the trade will continue to operate with impunity.

And as long as the country's courts make decisions that could adversely affect thousands

of women and young girls every year, the punch bags in Tuol Kork will continue to

get a severe work out from those with few opportunities to control their lives.

 

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