CAMBODIA’S migrant labourers could present a growing problem for officials in the fight against human trafficking, observers say.
Though a US state department report released last week suggested Cambodia has taken positive steps in the last year to combat trafficking, some are also warning that the issues posed by migrant workers remain unresolved.
Manfred Hornung, a legal adviser with rights group Licadho, said his group has worked with roughly 60 smuggled migrants who have returned to Cambodia over the past 18 months – people who he said represent “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to labour trafficking.
“These guys are virtual slave labourers,” Hornung said.
Severe conditions are common; some witness frequent beatings and murder on the fishing vessels to which many are sold, he said.
“In many cases, they are really horrific stories of human trafficking involving male migrant workers for labour exploitation,” he said.
Part of the difficulty in addressing the problem lies in the fact that there are no clear statistics to illustrate it.
The World Bank has estimated there are roughly 350,000 documented Cambodian migrants abroad. Observers say the number of undocumented workers is likely just as high.
But estimates also suggest that between 250,000 and 300,000 young people in Cambodia are entering the labour market every year, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). If jobs are scarce, these young workers will be forced to look abroad for income, Hornung said.
“You can imagine there are a lot of young people now who have to look for alternatives,” he said.
Bith Kimhong, director of the anti-human trafficking department at the Ministry of Interior, acknowledged that many Cambodians are being trafficked into forced labour abroad, but said officials are stepping up enforcement efforts.
“The government has set out its 2010 strategy for investigating cross-border crimes,” he said.
The US state department Trafficking in Persons report released last week cited a recent surge in prosecutions of traffickers in removing Cambodia from its watchlist of countries judged to be not doing enough to combat the problem. However, all but one of the 36 convictions reported were for sex trafficking, suggesting that legal consequences for those engaged in labour trafficking have been minimal.
“Labour trafficking among Cambodians migrating abroad for work is a growing problem that will require greater attention from authorities in the coming year,” the report states.
“While there were increasing reports of Cambodian migrant workers falling victim to trafficking ... the government has never criminally prosecuted or convicted any labour recruiters whose companies were involved in labour trafficking.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA