For the second year in a row, Cambodia has prosecuted fewer cases of human trafficking than the previous 12 months, according to the US State Department’s annual "Trafficking in Persons Report" for 2014.
Cambodia’s government also identified fewer victims of trafficking and failed to investigate, prosecute or convict a single official complicit in it, the report says.
These factors contributed to the Kingdom being given an unfavourable “Tier 2 Watch List” ranking, a status indicating an insufficient amount of effort to combat pervasive human trafficking.
“Endemic corruption at all levels of the Cambodian government continues to severely limit the ability of individual officials to make progress in holding traffickers accountable,” reads the State Department report, released late on Friday. “Cambodia’s anti-trafficking efforts are sliding backwards and downwards– that’s the core message of this report from Washington,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said.
In a case the Post reported last month, the neighbour of 14-yearold Sana* promised her $50 a day for a job dealing cards across the border in Thailand. Her desperately poor family agreed, but Sana never saw the inside of a casino. Instead, she claims she was locked in a room with a man who raped her multiple times, having paid $1,000 for her virginity.
According to the State Department’s report, too many officials in Cambodia turn the other way to such abuse. These officials line their pockets while children’s virginity is sold in massage parlours, women are kidnapped from rural areas and forced into prostitution, and men are tricked by brokers into debt bondage slavery on fishing vessels in Thailand.
Last year, Cambodia rejected the State Department’s findings, issuing its own summary of efforts to crack down on traffickers.
In response to this year’s report, the government is just glad the situation isn’t bleaker.
“It’s an improvement that we haven’t gotten worse,” government spokesman Phay Siphan said.
The report, however, notes that Cambodia has, in some regards, gotten worse: officials prosecuted just 50 trafficking cases this year, down from 102 tallied in 2012.
But anti-trafficking advocates weren’t so quick to condemn Cambodia’s efforts across the board. According to reports from rights group International Justice Mission, trafficking and sexual exploitation crimes have largely been removed from the open, due in part to better law enforcement.
“It is much more difficult to find young minors for sex, and the deterrence effect is high amongst the criminal population, which partially explains the decrease in sex-trafficking convictions,” IJM field office director Christa Hayden said.
Cambodia is still one of the last countries in the world to not have legalised undercover investigations of human trafficking, making it even more difficult to trace the increasingly covert trafficking networks. While authorities still conduct undercover stings, they have done so infrequently since 2010, when changes to the penal code left undercover investigative techniques on tenuous legal footing.
The Ministry of Justice is working to finalise guidelines on undercover investigative authority and training for anti-trafficking police this year.
“Just because trafficking isn’t quite as obvious and out in the open doesn’t mean it isn’t happening behind closed doors,” said Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development in Cambodia.
“What if authorities use tactics to trick women or children into worse situations? Who will hold the authorities accountable?” Sopheap said.
These kind of endemic corruption and accountability fears are far from ungrounded.
The trafficking report points to the December 2011 sentencing of Eam Rattana, the former Phnom Penh Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection chief who was sentenced in absentia for his own complicity in an illegal prostitution ring.
And the power politics involved in trafficking don’t end at the borders.
In a speech on Saturday, Thailand’s General Prayuth Chan-ocha blamed traffickers and brokers for spreading rumours that prompted a mass exodus of Cambodian workers from Thailand.
His promise to crack down on traffickers by regulating the foreign workforce came just hours after the State Department downgraded Thailand to the worst ranking given on the human-trafficking list, largely for failing to stop the slew of Cambodian and Burmese men forced into slavery on Thai fishing boats.
While the latest assessment of trafficking by the State Department did not take into account the recent border crisis, analysts said the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian migrants fleeing from Thailand this month now face even greater vulnerabilities to exploitation and abuse.
“There’s no work for them in Cambodia, but they’ll have to make a living, so they’ll be tempted to go back to earning more money in Thailand, especially with the government’s announcement [on Friday] of the $4 passport,” migration expert Andy Hall said.
“Smugglers and brokers very much want people to go round and round in circles, but each time the workers go across the border, it increases their debt bondage until they are like slaves, controlled by the brokers and traffickers.”
Hall added that the legal channels are no better, with high recruitment agency fees forcing workers to borrow money, leading to a situation of debt bondage in which their passports and documents are withheld to prevent escape from forced labour, often at no pay.
“All of this could be solved with long-term migration policy and enforcement of the rule of law,” Hall said.
Specifics aren’t available for the number of trafficking victims returned to Cambodia during the ongoing exodus, but with relevant impunity allowing traffickers free reign, estimates are high, according to Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center.
“The prosecution is only for the small fish. But the big fish have ties with high-ranking officials, and the system is profitable, so it just keeps going,” Tola said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA