Cambodia has established August 20 as National Inter-Faith Day Against Human Trafficking, to be observed from 2023 onwards.

Prime Minister Hun Sen made the announcement regarding the date and also told all government authorities and other stakeholders to join hands in preventing Cambodia from becoming a haven for organised crime groups engaged in human trafficking.

Speaking at the 6th National Inter-Faith Forum Against Human Trafficking on September 29, which was organised under the theme of “Do Not Use Cambodia as a Destination of Trafficking in Persons”, Hun Sen said that although the problem of human trafficking has increased in Cambodia in recent years the Kingdom is still far from the worst country in the world for that and other forms of transnational crime.

“If we don’t clarify this, people will see Cambodia as the worst country in the world [in terms of human trafficking]. I’m not claiming that Cambodia is the best country either, I just don’t want people to see Cambodia as being the worst,” he said.

Hun Sen said that Cambodia has lately gone from being a country where its people have been trafficked while trying to work or marry abroad to being a place where foreigners are illegally brought and cheated with false promises of high wages by organised crime groups.

He noted that even in the US the problem of illegal migration or immigration is a big issue – one that prompted former US President Donald Trump to try to build a wall along America’s border with Mexico and that crimes linked to human trafficking frequently include illegal gambling and drug trafficking.

“We must cooperate with all actors and especially we need participation from the public who can report to the authorities the crimes they have witnessed. This will prevent misfortune, because this can happen to their children and relatives if Cambodia is turned into a haven for these criminals,” he said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen presides over the 6th National Inter-Faith Forum Against Human Trafficking on September 29. SPM

Minister of Interior Sar Kheng – who also serves as chairman of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT) – lauded the participations of religious groups in the fight against human trafficking through educational efforts.

Sar Kheng said that Cambodian people have also migrated abroad and took great risks while looking for work. They have faced forced labour, hardships and going unpaid or with lower pay than what was promised while being trafficked and exploited for their labour.

“Sadly, some of them have just disappeared and have never returned to their families. Some of them return with disabilities, both physically and mentally, or they become undocumented and illegal immigrants – who are the most vulnerable to falling into the hands of criminals – and some have even lost their lives,” Sar Kheng said.

Sar Kheng said that with the improvement of the Covid-19 situation, Cambodia has now begun to suffer from new forms of crime: Internet scamming, labour and wage exploitation and forced labour with confinement and extortion, all of which negatively affects the reputation of Cambodia on the international stage.

The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons [TIP] Report released on July 19 downgraded Cambodia from the Tier 2 Watch List in 2021 to Tier 3 this year. However, Cambodian authorities at the time argued against the move, saying it did not take into consideration the efforts Cambodia has made against these types of crimes.

Later, after meeting with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Vitit Muntarbhorn, and investigating reports of human trafficking further, Sar Kheng noted that he was surprised and dismayed to find that 95 per cent of the reports were true, which prompted the government to launch a broad campaign to crack down on human trafficking as well as illegal gambling.

According to Sar Kheng, from August 18 to September 29 there were 368 trafficking complaints filed with the interior ministry through the ministry’s designated Facebook page and hotline, with 249 of those complaints originating from or about Preah Sihanouk province.

He said authorities have investigated and hunted for suspects and so far rescued 361 victims and a total of 41 suspects from three nationalities have been arrested and sent to court.

“There have been hundreds of other victims who have not been involved in human trafficking per se, but were working in dangerous conditions and wanted to leave so our police officers rescued them and brought them to safety in cooperation with some foreign embassies, and they are being safely repatriated,” he said.

The interior minister said that the NCCT had recently conducted a survey in Phnom Penh and 12 other provinces asking 1,153 respondents, including 341 women, about the causes of human trafficking.

The survey results showed that people felt the number one cause that led people to take risks that made them vulnerable to trafficking was personal debt, followed by negligence from family and society and a lack of education. Lack of awareness, gambling, drug and alcohol use were also cited as causes.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights group Licadho, said that to prevent Cambodia from becoming a haven for criminals, the government must be committed to combating these crimes and all law enforcement officials must resist the lure of corruption.

“If the government is committed and has a real willingness to do this then I think we can wipe out and prevent any large scale human trafficking or drug trafficking crimes from taking place, but enforcement officials must be courageous enough to implement the law no matter how high ranking the people involved might be. The most important thing is staying away from bribery,” he said.