It wasn’t until she was en route to the Ho Chi Minh City airport that Sok Srey Touch knew she was in trouble.
“There was another women from Prey Veng province in the taxi and she told me we were going to China,” the 23-year-old said in an interview Friday. “Suddenly I realized that what was going to happen was entirely different to what I had imagined.”
A week earlier, Ms. Srey Touch’s parents had been convinced by a local woman to allow her and her 18-year-old sister to move from their family home in Stung Trang district to South Korea, where she told them many young Cambodian women had found love and prosperity.
“We were scared but she told us: ‘Even though there are only two of you, when you get to Korea, we have many Cambodians who will help you,’” Ms. Srey Touch said. “I just believed her.”
In fact, that woman, who is now in Kompong Cham Provincial Prison charged with human trafficking, was a scout for an international syndicate that deceived women in order to get them to China, where they would be put on the market to meet the demand for wives created by Beijing’s one-child policy, and the Chinese preference for male offspring.
“I would never have agreed if I knew I was going to China,” said Ms. Srey Touch, who is now back with her family.
The practice of Cambodian women being tricked into forced marriages in China—where tens of millions of men are unable to start families and are willing to pay upward of $10,000 for a foreign bride—is not new.
But the route they are now taking is.
Following a spate of Cambodian women returning last year with horror stories of rape, confinement and domestic slavery, the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh agreed to more stringently assess the visa applications of young, single Cambodian women.
Cheng Hongbo, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy, said on Friday that the number of visas granted had “definitely decreased.”
The result is that rather than flying from Phnom Penh to Shanghai or Beijing, women are now being trafficked overland, passed from broker to broker, until they reach the north of Vietnam. The final leg of their journey is a clandestine boat trip around the border or a back-route car ride across it.
“That is the latest information from Cambodian women,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said Friday.
“Under the arrangement of brokers, the women travel by car to Ho Chi Minh, by plane to Hanoi, and then on a boat to China,” he said. “When they travel this way, they don’t need a visa.”
On Thursday evening, five Cambodian women landed in Phnom Penh after escaping the servitude they had been sold into in China’s Jiangsu province and making their way to the Cambodian Consulate in Shanghai.
Mr. Sounry said that these were the first cases the Foreign Affairs Ministry had become aware of in which the women were trafficked through Vietnam and entered China illegally via Long San, a Vietnamese border city known as one of two main smuggling points into China.
In August, Reuters reported that Vietnamese gangs and Chinese smuggling cartels, known as “snakeheads,” controlled established trafficking routes out of Long San and were regularly moving illicit cargo and cheap labor across the mountains into the industrial south of China.
It is not clear if Cambodian women are being trafficked through these existing channels.
Chab Dai, a coalition of anti-human trafficking NGOs, said it has also noticed the emerging pattern of women going overland through Vietnam to China.
“We have observed that a broker will usually travel with the group from Phnom Penh, and then there is a counterpart broker in the transit country, Vietnam, and in the destination country, China, to accompany the group and organize necessary travel arrangements,” said Kristinka Novak, a technical adviser at Chab Dai.
Ms. Novak said Chab Dai did not yet have examples of abuse caused by the additional “risk factors” that come with the new trafficking route and its illegal border crossings, such as longer periods of travel and extended stops along the way.
But the case of Ms. Srey Touch —who was saved from forced marriage when police pulled over the convoy of vehicles in which she was traveling through the sparsely populated far-north of Vietnam toward the Chinese border—offers plenty.
The 23-year-old said that she and her sister left Phnom Penh on July 13 without passports, were told to stay on the bus while crossing the border at Bavet City, and spent seven days holed up in a Ho Chi Minh City guesthouse waiting for the return of an unknown Vietnamese man who met them at the bus station.
“When that Vietnamese man came back, he had [Cambodian] passports [for us]. I don’t know where they came from,” Ms. Srey Touch said.
The sisters were then put on a bus to the airport, where they met a third Cambodian woman—also trafficked—who revealed that they had been cheated and were being sent to China, and not South Korea.
“I was angry, but everything was in motion and I felt like I could not turn back,” Ms. Srey Touch said.
Accompanied by a Khmer-speaking Chinese woman and a Vietnamese man, the three flew to Hanoi, she said, where they spent four more nights waiting before two cars picked them up—one for the traffickers, one for their victims—and headed for Long San, about 15 km from the Chinese border, where the vehicles would part ways.
“They told us that we were going in different cars because they were going through the checkpoint, which is expensive, and we were going to cross the mountains on a secret road,” Ms. Srey Touch said.
“The brokers told us: ‘Don’t worry, we aren’t going to sell you like people say.’”
On August 13—a full month after leaving home—Vietnamese police stopped the convoy somewhere between Hanoi and Long San and arrested the brokers.
Two days later, Neang Cheang Lon, the woman who convinced Ms. Srey Touch and her sister to leave their family, was arrested in Kompong Cham and is now facing up to 20 years in prison. Police say they are searching for more suspects linked to the criminal network.
On Friday, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said it was “not reasonable” to surmise that its plea for the Chinese Embassy to restrict visas had caused the shift to a new route for trafficking Cambodian women.
“We have to try all measures. This is not a problem we can solve quickly,” said Mr. Sounry, the spokesman.
“If there were 100 women who were going to fly to China to marry and we closed the airways, I don’t think 100 of them would then travel to China by boat,” he said. “Among them, maybe 10 or 20 would go.”