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250k Cambodians subject to forced labour or marriage, report finds

Fishermen arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport after being repatriated from East Timor, where they escaped from slave-like conditions aboard a Thai fishing boat.
Fishermen arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport after being repatriated from East Timor, where they escaped from slave-like conditions aboard a Thai fishing boat. Vireak Mai

250k Cambodians subject to forced labour or marriage, report finds

Cambodia has the third-highest prevalence rate for modern slavery in the world, trailing only North Korea and Uzbekistan, according to the Global Slavery Index 2016, released this morning by the Walk Free Foundation.

Using data gathered as part of the annual Gallup World Poll, Walk Free Foundation determined that as many as 256,800 Cambodians – 1.65 per cent of the population – are currently subject to forced marriage or labour.

However, in terms of sheer numbers, Cambodia is far eclipsed by larger countries such as India (home to an estimated 18.35 million modern-day slaves), China (3.39 million) and Pakistan (2.13 million).

Katharine Bryant, a research manager at the Walk Free Foundation and one of the index’s authors, said Cambodia’s economic situation is a key driver of its modern slavery crisis, with slavery being defined as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception”.

“It’s not unique to Cambodia, across the region, limited economic opportunities are pushing people to migrate overseas, sometimes taking less safe routes, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation,” she said.

The report referenced International Labour Organisation research that found 9 per cent of Cambodian fishermen are subject to forced labour; the same research found that Cambodians account for 40 per cent of fishermen across four major Thai ports.

Cambodians are frequently discovered to be working on fishing vessels under brutal conditions overseas. Earlier this month, Licadho human rights observer Sem Chausok said 500 Cambodians have been repatriated over the past three years after being rescued from forced labour at sea.

Forced marriage, meanwhile, accounted for 55,800 of the quarter of a million Cambodians the Walk Free Foundation deems to be modern slaves.

In particular, the report draws attention to the growing trend of Cambodian women trafficked for marriage to Chinese men. Eighty-two Cambodian women were repatriated from China last year.

Bryant said yesterday that China’s one-child policy was in part to blame for the rise in trafficking and forced marriages.

The report recommends that the two countries sign a memorandum of understanding to tackle the issue – negotiations began earlier this month to establish such an MoU.

Bryant also called for greater regulation of Cambodia’s abuse-ridden garment industry, which employs nearly 4 per cent of the Cambodian population.

“Lots of people engaged in modern slavery are working in factories,” she said. “We’d look for inspections to be improved to ensure people are not being exploited.”

Director of the anti-human trafficking department at the Ministry of Interior Phol Pithey said yesterday that while he had not seen the report yet, he doubted the accuracy of its findings.

“As we see the situation today, it is not like that. They just say it; we cannot close their mouth. Cambodia is not like that,” he said.

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