Sold by relatives or tricked into virtual slavery, thousands are ensnared by human
trafficking in Cambodia each year. They are smuggled across borders, or to distant
cities, and sold into bonded labor and commercial sex.
In recent years, the volume of trafficked people has grown here despite the proliferation
of policies aimed at stopping it. It is a failure, say US officials, that could carry
In short, Cambodia faces economic sanctions and the unenviable designation as one
of the world's worst trafficking offenders if efforts to halt trafficking do not
Phillip Linderman, a senior official in the US State Department's Office to Combat
Trafficking, says despite some signs of progress, the consistent failure to prosecute
and convict traffickers could land it back on the list of Tier 3 nations, the worst
category of trafficking offenders under US law.
And he implies that as long as impunity exists for traffickers, the country's chances
of escaping from Tier 3 are slim.
"The essential elements that we looked at for placement of Tier 3 for Cambodia
last year seem to be essentially the same," says Linderman. "They have
not passed the new trafficking law, they don't have in place an implementation procedure
to carry out a plan to combat trafficking, and they have not taken steps against
A major factor that undermines its credibility in confronting the issue, he says,
is collusion between traffickers and high-ranking political figures.
"We understand from a number of sources that government officials are involved
in trafficking, or they are letting the situation continue to exist and perhaps profiting
from it," he says. "We call on the government here to take steps to stop
To date no ranking government officials have been prosecuted for suspected involvement
in trafficking. The country has also proved unable to rein in the trade of exploited
women and children both across and within its borders.
Prum Sokha, the secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior (MoI), admits the
trade has in fact grown in recent years.
All of this will be included in the Trafficking in Persons Report, which Linderman
will submit to the US Congress by June 1. Cambodia's poor showing last year was because
it "did not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking
and is not making significant efforts to do so".
If the country does not improve its ranking, a position it shares with such countries
such as Belarus and Sudan, the US can end all "non-humanitarian, non-trade-related
aid". It can also oppose any loans from international monetary institutions
such as the World Bank.
These harsh measures are mandated by the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act of
2000, and could be in place as early as October unless the US president signs an
US Embassy officials in Phnom Penh were unable to speculate on the likelihood of
such sanctions or how it might affect the $36.5 million the US contributed to Cambodia
last year. Around $2 million of that went to anti-trafficking initiatives.
But the lack of certainty has some in government worried.
"They ranked Cambodia as Tier 3 [because] it's facing a lot of trafficking of
children," says Sary Mony, project manager for the MoI's Return and Reintegration
of Trafficked Children and Women. "But in terms of intervention that is put
in place, I don't think it is right because we have done a lot."
Other anti-trafficking advocates say that punishing the country for its failures,
rather than rewarding its progress, will not help to cut the number of people trafficked.
Rosanna Barbero of Oxfam's Womyn's Agenda for Change faults the exploitative economic
policies of developed nations for creating some of the problems.
"My first impression is that it is incorrect to say that Cambodia should be
under Tier 3 because there is so much effort, particularly in the Ministry of Women's
Affairs, to combat trafficking and address the issues that are involved in this,"
says Barbero. "It ignores the reality: that the government is doing all it can,
given the difficulties, because it takes away all the positive steps that they doing."
And the US admits there are some good signs. These include discussions of a stricter
trafficking law, public debate about the issue, and a nascent anti-trafficking police
unit. But, says Linderman, US law requires that the State Department examine the
"overall effort of the government".
"Is there high senior political commitment? Did they pass a national law? Did
they initiate a national plan and translate it into real policy ... and have they
shown international engagement?" he asks. "Here we're getting mixed signals.
They can execute better. Cambodia can do more."
Most government officials and NGOs say the most important factor fueling the rise
in trafficking is the country's worsening economic conditions. The two are inextricably
linked, since poverty breeds the vulnerability and desperation that lead to trafficking
in the first place.
MoI's Mony insists the problems cannot be solved until widespread poverty is addressed.
"Unless we do something to raise the living standards for people in communities,
we cannot stop trafficking," he says. "It has to start with prevention
in the communities. If not prevented, then the case becomes a problem already and
needs law enforcement."
So how do officials hope to turn back the surge in trafficking? "It's a huge
job," admits Christian Guth, technical advisor to the MoI's Law Enforcement
Against Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Children Project. "It needs law
enforcement, it needs education."
Guth's project, which started in 2000, hopes to achieve its aims by advising on law
enforcement, following up cases of trafficking, and implementing awareness campaigns.
He has no illusions about the time it will take to end the trade.
"I think for two or three years, [the government] is not really working to solve
this problem, but [rather] to reduce the number of trafficking victims," he
says. "There is poverty, lack of education and a low of level of enforcement
for traffickers. It's slowly changing, it will change with economic [improvement]
Guth says benefits of the project are more arrests and cases brought against traffickers,
and better coordination between police, prosecutors and organizations that rescue
The MoI's Prum Sokha elaborated on these statistics at a recent trafficking seminar.
He told attendees that around 700 cases were reported to the authorities over the
past two years.
The police arrested 290 offenders: 38 for child sexual exploitation, 54 for human
trafficking, 182 for rape and 16 for debauchery or child pornography. More than 650
victims were rescued; almost half were under 18. The department's responsibility
ends once those accused are in jail facing investigation; consequently it does not
have statistics on the numbers convicted.
There have been other efforts. Law enforcement initiatives launched recently include
an anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection department at the national level,
as well as specialized units including a juvenile protection bureau, and another
to combat trafficking.
There is also the five-year plan that the government adopted in 2000, which aims
to counter the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. Part of that involves
improving the legal and judicial system, and boosting international cooperation.
Advocates say these are good measures, but point out the inconsistency in approach,
such as the recent raid that shut Svay Pak. That does little to curb trafficking,
prosecute offenders or help victims.
"I prefer law enforcement in the classical style: investigation, identify victims,
rescue the victims - real law enforcement strategy," says Guth. "If it's
outside the legal system, it's hard to manage."
That has been the problem dogging anti-trafficking efforts in the past, and is still
a priority. Again, though, inconsistencies in approach emerge: the draft Law on Suppression
of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation has languished at the Council of Ministers
for months, frustrating those looking for further progress.
"It's very important to get a legal framework in place and the judicial system
to follow through on the framework," says Caroline Bakker, head of the Children
in Need of Special Protection Unit at UNICEF. "As long as there is no legal
framework, it will be very difficult to prosecute offenders."