Three girls arrested as illegal immigrants but later released rest at an NGO shelter.
At a trauma recovery shelter in Phnom Penh's Tuol Kork district, a heavy punch bag
hangs in the courtyard.
The center manager explains his residents are sometimes so overcome by anger they
become violent and destroy their possessions or try to harm themselves. The punch
bag provides an outlet for their frustrations.
The shelter is home to 33 young girls, Cambodians and Vietnamese, all of whom are
victims of sex trafficking or rape. The youngest is just eight. Although she had
been there for a week when the Post visited, she was still too traumatized to talk.
Similar centers are found throughout Tuol Kork and elsewhere in Phnom Penh. Girls
who have been sold for their virginity or forced to become sex workers are rescued
and provided with a safe haven, psychological counseling, food, skills training,
sports activities and schooling. Slowly they recover and their anger subsides.
In the past few weeks police have 'rescued' two more groups of Vietnamese girls as
trafficking victims. Yet instead of finding themselves in shelters receiving counseling,
the girls are currently in jail awaiting trial for illegal immigration. The brothel
owners and those who trafficked them remain free and have not been charged.
In May, 14 Vietnamese girls who were 'rescued' by the anti-trafficking police during
raids on Tuol Kork brothels were sent to a shelter run by NGO AFESIP. On June 20
the same police unit then arrested 14 of them on the charge of illegal immigration.
Eleven of the girls remain in Prey Sar prison and will go to trial August 5. The
trafficking investigations are being done separately.
And three weeks later, 21 girls were taken into custody when the Foreign Police division
raided a Daun Penh guest house which they say was operating as a brothel. The 14
girls who were determined to be over 17 were also arrested on the charge of illegal
immigration and are now in Prey Sar prison.
The jailing of the 25 prompted outrage from human rights and children's NGOs, UNICEF,
the International Organization for Migration (IOM), diplomats, the Ministry of Women's
and Veterans' Affairs, and even the anti-trafficking police.
The organizations say Cambodia's 1996 anti-trafficking law protects the victims of
trafficking regardless of their ages, and NGOs have the right to take care of such
victims by providing legal protection and safe shelter. NGOs say this is the first
time the immigration law has been used to arrest trafficking victims.
"The immigration law has been passed for many years but not used and now they
start by using it with small girls," says Chanthol Oung, executive director
of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC).
"It worries me that [the girls] will end up in jail. Which is worse - jail or
brothel? I think jail. Brothels might be better than prison in terms of food, clothing
and sleeping places."
As far back as anyone in Phnom Penh can remember, victims of sex trafficking from
Thailand, Vietnam and other countries have either been formally repatriated through
IOM or entrusted to NGOs who send them home through informal channels.
Speculation abounds over the apparently sudden shift in government policy. Several
observers believe the arrests are linked to the current census of foreigners in Phnom
Penh in an attempt by the government to capitalize on anti-Vietnamese sentiment in
the lead up to the 2003 general election.
One western observer, who would not be named, points to the vulnerability of those
"These girls have three strikes against them - they are women, they are Vietnamese
and prostitutes," he says. "So they are an easy target, and maybe are being
exploited for election campaign reasons."
Nup Sophon is the deputy chief of the Municipal Court and will preside over the first
illegal immigration case. He denies the government's policy has changed, saying the
arrests have nothing to do with the census.
"This is not linked [to the recent immigration census], because immigration
law has been put in practice for many years," he says.
And much to the surprise of NGOs and the police, Sophon claims the courts have tried
to implement immigration laws for years, but in all previous cases the Vietnamese
sex workers did not answer questions about immigration so the courts were forced
to set them free.
"When these girls in both cases were arrested they said they were Vietnamese
and had no visas or passports," Sophon says. "They were illegal [immigrants]
so the prosecutor charged them with illegal entry and they were detained according
to immigration law, not the anti-trafficking law."
However even he admits that, "Even the Ministry of Interior (MoI) wonders why
the courts just do it now."
There is evident tension between the courts and the police over the charges. Keo
Sun, assistant to the anti-trafficking project manager at the MoI, whose police carry
out many brothel raids with the help of NGOs, says he is very unhappy the girls have
"Our project is to help the victims to have a better life," he says. "The
police did not understand why the courts have charged them. It is the idea of the
court - the police's duty is to rescue the girls. We want to help these ladies regardless
of if they are from Vietnam or another country."
The Post met with both judges, Sophon and Judge Bunary who will investigate the first
trafficking case. Both admit the girls are victims of trafficking.
"The court sees that they are really victims of prostitution and sex trafficking
because the brothel owners take advantage of them," says Bunary. "Cambodian
law opposes sex exploitation but their entry is illegal - that is why the court must
Yet Caroline Bakker, child protection officer with the UN's children's agency UNICEF,
says the court's stance contradicts protocols that Cambodia has signed.
"This is against the UN international human rights instruments Cambodia has
signed which say that states shall protect the rights of trafficked people not withstanding
any irregular immigration status," she says. "[The courts] should call
a halt on any other charges as long as the trafficking case has not been clarified."
UNICEF has worked with NGOs and the MoI since 2000 to implement the Law Enforcement
Against Sexual Exploitation of Children Project. It provides technical and financial
support to the ministry's department of anti-trafficking and juvenile protection,
which carries out many of the raids.
Bakker says the police are making a good attempt to enforce the law and agrees with
the MoI's Keo Sun that immigration charges may have a big impact on the ability of
victims to speak out, and consequently on future brothel raids.
Trafficking victim Srey Oun studies for a new life at an NGO shelter in Tuol Kork.
Sun's concern is that Vietnamese girls will no longer complain for fear they will
be charged with illegal immigration.
"In a lot of cases the parents come to the police and say their children have
been trafficked," he says. "When we rescue them and then the court puts
a charge on their daughter, will they dare to complain again?"
As to the question of what is being done to arrest the traffickers, brothel owners
and pimps who have trapped thousands of young men and women into sex slavery in Cambodia,
Judge Bunary says they are trying hard but have so far been very unsuccessful.
"The government is working to crack down on traffickers but they just run away,"
she says. "They are not arrested. We don't know how they learn that we will
raid the brothels."
Observers says the problem of endemic corruption within Cambodia's courts combined
with poor law enforcement has given traffickers a free rein to use the country as
a base for regional and international trafficking networks.
AFESIP's coordinator Sao Chhoeurth says judges and law enforcers do not respect the
"Even if we have 1,000 more laws, if there is no implementation we cannot protect
the whole society," he says. As for the current cases, Chhoeurth questions how
trafficking charges can be laid if the only evidence the courts have - the girls
- are found to be illegal immigrants and deported.
Yim Po, director of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights
(CCPCR), agrees law enforcement is severely lacking.
"Now the government has the intention to raid the brothel and karaoke [parlors]
and rescue the sex workers," he says. "But the problem is police cannot
arrest brothel owners because they are involved with corrupt government officials
and are protected. The implementation of the law is low - the police arrest the victims,
not the perpetrators."
It is clear that a new draft trafficking law, which the Ministry of Justice has drawn
up with technical assistance from UNICEF, is much needed. For example, the crime
of debauchery carries a prison term of up to 20 years, but the term itself is not
defined in law.
In a bid to resolve some of these concerns, the government will hold two rounds of
consultations on the draft with key stakeholders later this month. NGOs complain
that the legislation is full of gaps.
IOM's project coordinator Lourdes Autencio says a lack of implementing guidelines
in the law means that, for instance, search warrants are not issued on weekends,
public holidays or after 6 p.m.
"Several women were recently referred to us who apparently had been trafficked
to Cambodia from Romania," says Autencio of one case, "but we were unable
to obtain a search warrant [that weekend] and had to leave them in potentially great
risk at the brothel."
UNICEF's Bakker says the government needs to adopt UN protocols into local legislation
and revise domestic laws to bring them in line with international instruments. That,
she says, will cut down on the prevalent legislative confusion.
Cambodia has also nearly finalized a Memorandum of Understanding with Thailand on
cross-border cooperation to prevent trafficking and to assist victims, and talks
recently started with the Vietnamese government to introduce a similar document.
Finally, there is widespread acceptance that the court system needs to be strengthened.
NGOs say jud-ges urgently need training so they can properly interview traumatized
victims of sex trafficking.
They say many girls have been sold by their parents and are pressured into defending
them by saying they volunteered to work at brothels. Some girls are too afraid of
the brothel owners to reveal their identities.
"The courts only met the girls once and then they send them to jail," says
AFESIP's Chhoeurth. "They do not have the skills to talk to the victims about
He says AFESIP has taken care of more than 1,000 victims of sex trafficking since
its doors opened in 1997. The numbers, the NGO says, are increasing, and the victims
are getting younger.
But until the government, NGOs and others agree on a common standard to deal with
the problem, those running the trade will continue to operate with impunity.
And as long as the country's courts make decisions that could adversely affect thousands
of women and young girls every year, the punch bags in Tuol Kork will continue to
get a severe work out from those with few opportunities to control their lives.
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