Thirty-one migrant brides have been repatriated to Cambodia from China in the first six months of this year, including two who landed at Phnom Penh’s international airport last night. Many return with tales of alleged abuse. But there are few statistics on the women who choose to remain in China, and their stories are often difficult to uncover.
Chenda*, 21, paid $2,000 to a garment-factory manager in Prey Veng for what she thought was a ticket to South Korea. But her plane first arrived in Shanghai, and she was married to a Chinese man eight years her senior. For two years, she’s remained with him in Zhejiang province in eastern China, relatively happily.
In a phone interview with Post Weekend this week, Chenda said that she has a “normal” marriage, is raising a young daughter, and knows 10 other Khmer women in her village alone. “I think there are a thousand Khmer people [in the province],” Chenda said. She added that she hopes to return to Cambodia soon, but just for a visit.
An article published this week on the Chinese news site Sixth Tone follows Sophorn, a Cambodian woman who lives, like Chenda, in Zhejiang with her husband and two children. Recruited from a garment factory three years ago, she willingly left dire straits, an abusive marriage, and two more kids in Cambodia. She took a Chinese name.
Sophorn considers her new marriage to be a good one, and believes that the support she provides her family back home outweighs the cultural barriers.
“I think I am happier in China than I was in Cambodia,” she said.
In May, Chinese photojournalist Yan Cong explored the daily life of a Cambodian woman who, like Sophorn, chose to marry in China in an exhibition in Phnom Penh.
“It’s not so different from here [in Cambodia],” Cong told the Post at the time. “I personally met a lot of women who were happy – or had chosen to stay anyway.”
Their tales complicate the narrative of the cross-border marriage market and the “human trafficking” label that’s been applied to the practice. In Phnom Penh’s courts, some “victims” have come to the defence of their traffickers, raising questions about the way the crime is prosecuted.
Whether a cross-border marriage constitutes “trafficking” depends on the case, according to Keo Thea, the deputy head of the Phnom Penh Municipal Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection office.
If the exchange involves crossing a border illegally, anyone involved making a profit, or any measure of abuse, then charges can be laid. The maximum prison sentence runs from seven to 15 years. Extreme cases have seen tuk-tuk drivers and translators assisting the trip to China implicated.
All are – in theory – equal under the eyes of the law. But some have raised concerns about a grey area if a woman seeks out a broker herself. “For me, I don’t think it is human trafficking: if she wants to marry, and she goes to marry, that’s not human trafficking,” said legal expert Sok Sam Oeun. “But the visa needs to be legal.”
Furthermore, those who are prosecuted are often local Cambodian agents working on an ad hoc basis to recruit people in their social circles, like within factories. “It’s easier than before,” explained Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia (GDC). “Working through peers is more helpful – women [tend to] think, ‘Women are my friends’.”
Some agents claim to be unaware of the situations in which their friends could become entangled.
Prey Veng garment worker Boeun Soklin and her husband were tried in February in Phnom Penh for helping a woman Soklin claims as a friend, Khoeun Am, secure money and a visa through Soklin’s sister, who resides in China. Am did not appear in court. The prosecutor asked that the judge be “lenient,” but Soklin received seven years imprisonment. Her husband was let off.
Soklin’s defence lawyer, Duy Soksolida, wants to appeal the case. “Sometimes, they just help to process the passport or the visa,” she said. “That is not human trafficking.”
“But now my client is in Prey Sar [prison],” Soksolida added. “And if [her sister] in China comes to Cambodia, she will be, too.”
Two weeks ago, the court sentenced another woman, Nai Theary, to five years in jail. Neither of her alleged victims had directly accused Theary of a crime, and one had described her as a friend.
Observers suggest such cases could reflect another problem: impunity for those at the top of trafficking rings. “The principle of equality before the law rules out the idea of different sentences for the same crimes,” explained Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “But that doesn’t mean that Cambodia can ignore the accountability deficit that sees the minnows go to jail for the long term, while the big fish swim free.”
Sopheap, of GDC, echoed this sentiment. “Often, the women in the lower positions are the ones to get caught,” she said. “The company here and the company in China, they work together. And then the men select: it’s like you would buy a chicken.”
Of course, abuse cannot be ignored. Chenda’s sister, Vanda* suffered alleged abuse in her trafficked marriage, arranged under the same scheme. She returned to Cambodia when her visa expired only with the help of her sister’s spouse.
Vanda lies to her neighbours about her experience out of shame. And while she has received legal aid from human-rights organisation Adhoc since her return, her case has not come to court. The police have never issued an arrest warrant for her recruiters.
A draft memorandum of understanding to cut down on trafficking between Cambodia and China is still in the works, according to Ran Serey Leakhena, deputy secretary general of the National Committee for Counter-Trafficking (NCCT). It aims to address differences in marriage laws between the two countries.
“We cannot stop them from being married to [Chinese men],” she said. “But we can find the best way to protect them.”
But she added a caveat: “First we need to know how many of our citizens are even going to China to get married.”
*Names changed to protect identities.