Human trafficking in Cambodia: A problem that’s as wicked as the issue


Human trafficking in Cambodia: A problem that’s as wicked as the issue

Source: Khmer Times


t has been a year since Khmer Times first reported on human trafficking in the country.

What was rampant was not the trade of humans for the purpose of sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation, providing a spouse in the context of forced marriage, or the extraction of organs or tissues.

What was at issue is forced labour in the form of employment scams involving syndicates, almost all of which are run by foreigners.

These syndicates will lure people from other countries with incredible job offers into Cambodia and trapped them to work in their criminal operations, from online gambling to call centres to scam people within and outside the country.

Many of these workers, once in the clutches of the syndicates, work in torrid conditions and in fear for their lives.

Khmer Times’ coverage, the first of which was on a Chinese company detaining workers in Sihanoukville, has seen more and more cases unveiled in the past months and today it is an issue that has drawn the eyes of the world to the Kingdom.

Numerous reports on either crackdowns or rescued operations have made headlines in the past years while different nationalities involved – Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Pakistani and others.          Most of these crimes are taking place in Preah Sihanouk’s Sihanoukville which is popular among Chinese investors and visitors. From 2016 to 2018, Sihanoukville saw a large influx of Chinese investors and workers in Cambodia, thanks to a real estate boom.

With them came gangs that operated online gambling outlets leading to debts, mainly among their own nationals, resulting in a rise in crimes such as abduction and extortion of gamblers.

There was also a surge in telecom fraud, or Voice over Internet Protocol scams, involving Chinese operators preying on their own countrymen and other nationals.

Their workers are usually hooked by promises of high salaries, from $800 to $1,500, along with other too-good-to-be-true benefits. Some are taken in by the sweet and convincing talk of recruiters in their respective countries.

Investigations have found that many of the workers applied for a tourist visa upon their arrival in Cambodia instead of a work visa. Once in the country, the syndicates will seize their passports.

In many cases, the recruits are sold to various companies.

The rise of human trafficking with such a modus operandi is likely the reason behind Cambodia’s contentious demotion in the US Embassy’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report. The report blacklisted Cambodia by dropping it from Tier 2 to Tier 3, placing the Kingdom at risk of sanctions issued by the States, for Cambodia’s failure to fulfill minimum standards for eradicating human trafficking and has not made much progress on its anti-trafficking capacity.

The recent dramatic escape of Vietnamese workers from a casino in Kandal province by swimming across a river at the border to get back to Vietnam is like rubbing salt into the wound.

A Cambodian Immigration officer counsels Indonesian migrant workers after their rescue from scam syndicates. Supplied

The getaway led to the drowning of a teenage worker. While all of them allegedly came into Cambodia illegally, a female worker interviewed by the Vietnamese press spoke of the “hellish” working conditions in Cambodia’s casino and that all the lucrative promises made to her and other workers were all lies.

Cambodia’s reputation as a well-known destination for this relatively new form of trafficking appears cast in stone.

“With such a record, Cambodia is facing the risk of losing foreign investment, especially from the US and other Western countries,” said Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central).

“If Cambodia does not do enough to stop this, it could affect the economy as a whole,” he said.

Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state with the Interior Ministry and vice-chairwoman of the National Committee for Anti-Human Trafficking, who has been frustrated with recent developments, said it is not fair at all to put all the blame on Cambodia.

“The crime involved syndicates run by foreigners who have drawn other foreigners into their traps,” she said. “We have to bear in mind that before they are trafficked into Cambodia, they were reached by the criminals in their own countries.”

Bun Eng added that Cambodia’s anti-human trafficking authorities have beefed up their crackdowns operation, which saw record crackdowns on human trafficking last year.

“Our ability to deal with this new form of crime is limited due to the perpetrators’’ use of advanced information technology.

“When citizens in other countries have been lured to work in Cambodia through the modern way of communication and they fell for it, it is that individual country which should bear responsibility for their citizen’s falling victim in trafficking,” she said. “While even more developed countries are having a hard time tracing these criminal activities, why do you expect Cambodia, a developing country, to do better?”

Bun Eng claimed that Cambodia is not the only country where scams have been occurring.

“We still do not understand why these traffickers choose Cambodia for their operations, but I am sure that many other countries will be experiencing the same thing if proper investigations are conducted and the media shed light on them like our country,” she said.

Bun Eng said a nationwide operation is now underway to trace and crack down on illegal syndicates, but in the meantime, she wants the other countries to do their share by tackling the basics.

“The governments have to educate their citizens about these crimes, and do whatever within their capacity to prevent them while those citizens were still in their countries,” she said.

“First of all, they have to make their citizens know that there is no easy job with big money. Instead of blaming Cambodia for being the destination of trafficking, they have to teach their people to question the lucrative job offers, especially when they do not have the skill to match.”

Moeun Tola, Central executive director, called for other countries to provide assistance to Cambodia to enhance its ability to combat human trafficking.

Meanwhile, it looks like help is being poured in. For example, The US Agency for International Development (USAID) last week announced a new initiative to assist Cambodia in investigating and prosecuting human trafficking.

It said the project will be supervised by the International Justice Mission (IJM) – a part of USAID’s Cambodia Countering Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) – and implemented by Winrock International. CTIP works in partnership with the Cambodian government, the private sector, and civil society to protect Cambodians from human trafficking, the statement said.

“We are proud to assist the Cambodian government’s efforts in the fight against human trafficking,” said Benjamin Wohlauer, Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, adding that the initiative will alleviate the suffering of human trafficking victims and help punish the perpetrators.

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