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Brothel busts drive sex workers underground

Brothel busts drive sex workers underground



Sex workers wait for customers at a karaoke bar in Toul Kork, Phnom Penh, prior to a nationwide crackdown on brothels this year that has driven prostitutes from organized establishments onto the streets.

A lone, razor-thin girl shivering in the rain underneath a streetlight and a man selling condoms are some of the only remaining reminders of a teeming red light district at the far end of Phnom Penh’s Street 70 that flourished until recently, when a government crackdown put the country’s sex industry under siege.

Country-wide brothel closures and raids on dark parks where working girls and their customers gather are hallmarks of the effort to tackle rampant prostitution in Cambodia

ahead of a key assessment next month of the Kingdom’s anti-trafficking

efforts by the US State Department.

But advocates say that new legislation enacted in February to curb trafficking and sexual

exploitation has really only given authorities a license to rape and

rob – evidenced by the spiraling number of reported abuse cases at the

hands of police rousting former brothel workers from their perches in

parks and on street sides.

“What is happening is that the police are

confiscating property – chairs, tables – from outside karaoke bars,

they’re taking everyone’s jewelry,” said one source who did not want to

be named but who has repeatedly visited public places where prostitutes

gathered to monitor the nightly raids by the authorities.

Worse still, allegations and first-hand accounts are piling up that

prostitutes are being arrested and some raped before being forced to

pay money in exchange for their release, the source said.

At the heart of the problem, advocates say, is a flawed law that equates all

commercial sex work with human trafficking, what Cheryl Overs of the

Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) calls a “conflation of

prostitution and trafficking.”

“It assumes that sex work is

inherently degrading and therefore that you cannot consent to it – like

you can’t consent to slavery – so all sex workers become victims of

trafficking,” she told the Post.

Critics of Cambodia’s “Law on

the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” said it

is so broad and open to interpretation by authorities that even those

unwittingly associating with sex workers can be arrested for


For example, a mototaxi driver carrying a prostitute to work or a bar

owner whose establishment is being used as a rendezvous could

theoretically be prosecuted and risk having their property seized.

Offering one’s sexual services for money is now also illegal for the

first time, whereas in the past only pimping and procurement could be


This zero-sum approach, with its arrests and mass brothel closures,

also does little more than drive prostitutes deeper underground – more

vulnerable to trafficking and further away from the legion of public

health groups who have been instrumental in curbing Cambodia’s HIV/Aids


The Ministry of Health’s National Center for HIV/Aids, Dermatology and

STD Control has reported a recent 26 percent reduction in the number of

women seeking diagnosis and treatment for sexually transmitted

infections at their family health clinics.

Implementation of the law is “having serious negative public health

consequences and threatens Cambodia’s remarkable success in cutting HIV

prevalence from 2.0 percent in 1998 to 0.9 percent in 2007,” said a

United Nations, donor and civil society position statement released May


The statement only underscores the infighting caused by the

controversial legislation that has hobbled the UN agencies and health

NGOs who are meant to be monitoring its implementation.

UNICEF funding and support helped create the legislation but other

world body agencies including the UN’s Inter-agency Project on Human

Trafficking (UNIAP) have reservations about how it will be enforced and

say that without strict implementation, the legislation does more harm

than good.

“At all the agencies, the anti-trafficking wing of one is working

against the other – this is more than one hand not knowing what the

other is doing, they are actively working against each other,” said


“The Cambodian government itself mirrors that lack of cohesion at the UN level.”

One Cambodian institution that is fully behind the new legislation is

the police, according to the force’s head of anti-trafficking, Bith Kim

Hong, who dismissed concerns over the law’s impact on the control of


“NGOs that work with HIV/Aids think differently from the police,” he told the Post on May 13.

“Stopping [brothels] from existing is better than having brothels …

when there are no brothels HIV/Aids cannot spread to other people,” he


Kim Hong denied reports from groups like the Women’s Network for Unity

(WNU) that large numbers of prostitutes were being rounded up under the

law’s soliciting clause, only to emerge from jail stripped of their

money and possessions, or showing signs of physical and sexual abuse.

“It is not true police are using this law to arrest and extort money

from the suspects. We never arrest prostitutes but rather we save them

from brothels,” he said.

“We hand them over to the social ministry to take care of them. It is

no problem for [prostitutes] when brothels are closed. They can learn

different professions from the ministry and local NGOs.”

However, this support from either the government or NGOs is rarely

forthcoming, say groups like the WNU, leaving these women little choice

but to continue taking more risks.

“When orderly organized venues are being closed, it becomes a buyers market,” said Overs. 

Cambodia’s new trafficking law and the ensuing sex industry crackdown

serves as a backdrop to next month’s reassessment of the country’s

anti-trafficking efforts by the US with significant amounts of funding

at risk should the country be downgraded.

Cambodia in 2006 was elevated from the list’s lowest designation, Tier 3, and has remained on Tier 2 Watch since then.

In an interview with the Post on May 8, US Ambassador to Cambodia

Joseph Mussomeli said “it’s a very close call” as to whether Cambodia

is a Tier 2 country or not.

“The issue is, are they doing this just to keep the Americans off their

back or are they doing this because they are concerned about their


“My view is at the highest levels of government there is a genuine

concern for the people of Cambodia that they should not be trafficked,”

he said. (Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)


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