Cambodia rescued almost 8,000 Cambodian victims of human trafficking from eight countries last year, according to recently issued government figures, with labor rights groups urging better protections to prevent trafficking.
Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Ouch Borith, in a March 1 press conference said that in 2022 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rescued 7,953 Cambodian victims of human trafficking and rights abuses from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Singapore.
But rights advocates say the government could be doing much more to prevent trafficking in the first place, both by going after illegal brokers within Cambodia who move laborers abroad through unsafe channels and by providing more livelihood opportunities at home.
“The report cites many cases of human trafficking offenses, especially during the past three years,” said Moeun Tola, executive director of CENTRAL, which works with victims of labor rights abuses in Cambodia and abroad. “I think the number is actually higher than the government’s annual report… Many Cambodian victims abroad called for help, but [the embassy response] was late and there was no answer sometimes.”
Tola said he had seen improvements from the embassies in recent years, with faster response times and more money spent on combating trafficking. But, he noted, the government could do much more to police Cambodia’s borders, where illegal crossings have allowed brokers to easily smuggle Cambodians out of the country.
“This is one of the major causes of human trafficking in Cambodia. The government should pay proper attention to this crime because it is seriously affecting human rights,” said Tola.
Trafficking from Cambodia takes a range of forms. Would-be migrant workers eager for better paid jobs abroad pay brokers to arrange work and travel, only to be moved through illegal channels, see their salary withheld, or wind up in dangerous conditions. In the worst cases, Cambodians have ended up enslaved on Thai fishing boats, forcibly married, or physically and sexually abused by their employers.
Tola noted that bride trafficking to China in particular, which can include both cases of women who willingly go abroad for marriage as well as those tricked into doing so, has been on the rise in recent years.
“We don’t have a labor policy with China… [which] causes the anarchy of human trafficking between the two countries,” he noted.
In Thailand, meanwhile, an estimated 30 percent of Cambodian migrant workers are undocumented, according to Tola. There, they are vulnerable to a range of abuses including nonpayment and a lack of insurance.
“We recorded many cases in which Thai traders didn’t pay for their work, and they called the police to arrest them. They have been abused because the trader thought that they could work without legal documentation in their country,” said Tola.
Sokheang, who lives in Memut’s Rumchek commune in Tboung Khmum province, returned earlier this year after three years in China.
Like many other trafficking victims, she went willingly, after being promised a vendor job abroad.
“One of my neighbors brought me to work in China. I went there through her without legal documents. My family and I didn’t know anything at that time because we were very happy that I could work abroad. We didn’t think we were being scammed,” she told CamboJA News.
During her time there, she was never paid, forced to work overtime, and given no holidays or health insurance. She also faced sexual harassment at work.
Over time, “I started to realize that I was sold illegally to work in China. I was so scared and became so depressed,” she said.
“Through movies, I knew about human trafficking where people are sold to work abroad, but now I know it for myself. I never thought that I could come back to Cambodia and I thought that I would die there as an illegal immigrant,” she added.
While Sokheang’s family notified the authorities numerous times, COVID related closures meant it took years for a response. Eventually, she was rescued following NGO intervention.
“I was rescued from China by CENTRAL this year after my parents filed a complaint to this NGO. And I was 100 percent rescued from China as the victim of human trafficking,” she said.
Despite her general knowledge of trafficking, said Sokheang, she came to understand that she was unaware of how labor scams operated and called on Cambodians in rural areas in particular to learn how to avoid being tricked.
“We have poor education so of course we don’t know about this serious crime and we face a high risk of human trafficking,” she said.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at human rights NGO Adhoc, said such trafficking is a clear violation of human rights.
“The Cambodian people who were scammed to work abroad face serious rights abuses by the trader or their boss, especially through human trafficking,” he said.
Ministry of Interior secretary of state and permanent vice-chair of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, Chou Bun Eng, told CamboJA News that the Cambodian government has been working to crack down on human trafficking in all forms.
“As we know, human trafficking has been a hot topic for the past decade,” she said. “We have been paying proper attention to this and have been cracking down and setting measures to prevent it across the country.”
Last year, authorities arrested and charged more than 200 suspects of trafficking, she added.
Bun Eng noted that due to the pandemic and border closures, human trafficking slightly declined, while in-country exploitation via online platforms increased.
Last year, the US government downgraded Cambodia’s human trafficking ranking, labeling the country with its lowest Tier 3 rating in its annual Trafficking in Persons report.