THE number of sex workers in the isolated province of Ratanakkiri has risen sharply, hotel managers and health officials there say, during a year in which police in urban centres launched aggressive, and often violent, campaigns to wipe out street-based prostitution.
"They [sex workers] moved to Ratanakkiri from Phnom Penh and other provinces where their careers were banned," said Lanh Ra, who heads the government's HIV/Aids program in the province.
"They moved here because so far in Ratanakkiri there has not been any action by the police to punish - directly or indirectly - sex workers. I haven't seen any brothel or karaoke club closed."
Increased HIV risk
He said the rise in the numbers of sex workers has also exposed the province's residents to increased risks of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
"Already, we've noticed a ten percent increase in the number of people living with HIV/Aids compared to the number last year," he said.
According to Lanh Ra, all of the province's residents infected with the virus were either sex workers or their customers. He said his health office had stepped up sex education in the area in order to prevent increased transmission in the province.
Mer Veasna said the number of sex workers meeting customers at the Sesan guesthouse he manages in the province's capital, Banlung, has doubled - a trend also observed by Keo Vey, the manager of the nearby Kimorakat Hotel. Most of the new faces, they said, had recently arrived from nearby provinces or Phnom Penh.
In February this year, a new US-backed anti-trafficking law came into force. The legislation seeks to stop human trafficking by criminalising the sex industry as a whole, leading to police raids across the capital. Many observers have condemned the raids, saying they have given the police licence to rape and rob vulnerable sex workers.