The U.S. has downgraded Cambodia in its latest global Trafficking in Persons Report for showing no discernable improvements in its efforts to combat human trafficking over the past year, the country’s first demotion in five years.
Launched Thursday in Washington by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the report also says that the notorious Svay Pak brothel village near Phnom Penh, where child prostitution was openly sold for decades, continues to operate even though police have made concerted efforts in the past decade to stomp out sexual exploitation in the area.
“The Svay Pak brothel area outside Phnom Penh, where young children are exploited in the sex trade, continues to operate despite numerous attempts by police to close it down,” the report says.
The 2013 report cites an increase in the number of Cambodians being trafficked onto Thai fishing trawlers, a drop in the prosecution of traffickers and persistent complicity in the illicit trade among government officials.
The assessment moves Cambodia from Tier 2, where it had been for the past three years, down to Tier 2 Watch List. Using a scale of Tier 1 to Tier 3, 3 being the worst, the rankings are less a measure of the size of a country’s human trafficking problem than the government’s efforts to tackle it.
“The government prosecuted and convicted fewer trafficking offenders and identified fewer victims than it did in the previous year. The government did not make efforts to address trafficking-related corruption during the year, and complicity of government officials contributed to a climate of impunity for trafficking offenders and a denial of justice to victims,” the report says.
“Because the government did not demonstrate evidence of overall increasing efforts to address human trafficking over the previous year, Cambodia is placed on Tier 2 Watch List,” the report says.
The report applauds some government efforts in 2012, including the convictions of staff at one labor recruitment agency and new procedures for assisting male trafficking victims.
But it said the actual protection of male victims remained “inadequate.”
It also notes a worrying trend among sex traffickers moving their operations out of brothels and into less visible locations with the aid of brokers, rendering the trade “increasingly clandestine.”
And while a 2011 ban on sending domestic workers to Malaysia—where many suffer severe physical abuse at the hands of their employers—forced other recruiters also suspected of falsifying age records to shut down, the report says, the move cut off Cambodians already in Malaysia from their families and did not stop more from going.
“The ban created difficulties in accounting for the workers already in Malaysia and increased their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse,” it says. “Despite the ongoing ban, women and girls seeking employment continue to migrate to Malaysia, reportedly through the use of tourist visas. Some of them subsequently become victims of domestic servitude.”
The report also points a heavy finger at the government for actively aiding trafficking in the recruitment agency trade.
“Endemic corruption at all levels continued to impede anti-trafficking endeavors,” it says. “Local observers believe corruption to be the cause of impunity afforded to recruiting firms, including some with reported financial ties to senior government officials, engaging in illegal recruitment practices that contribute to trafficking. Police officials reportedly cooperate with labor brokers who send migrants across the border into Thailand without regard for their vulnerability to trafficking.”
The report notes the 2011 conviction in absentia of Phnom Penh’s former anti-human trafficking police chief, Eam Ratana, for pimping and his continued evasion of arrest.
At Mr. Ratana’s trial, one of the convicted brothel owners accused the city’s new anti-human trafficking police chief, Keo Thea, of taking bribes as well. Mr. Thea later denied the claim.
On Thursday, Mr. Thea was upset to hear that Cambodia had slipped a spot in the U.S.’ latest trafficking report and disputed the assessment.
“I don’t know why they say that,” he said. “I’m kind of dismayed. I work so hard.”
The reason authorities prosecuted fewer people for trafficking last year, he added, was because they had prosecuted so many the year before.
“We arrested so many people and sent them to court” in 2011, he said. “This year, we have not done much cracking down since there have not been that many offenders.”
Chiv Phally, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, declined to comment because he had not seen the report.
Moeun Tola, however, who heads the labor program for the Community Legal Education Center, agreed with the U.S.’ assessment. His legal aid NGO helped repatriate roughly three times as many Cambodians trafficked as fisherman in 2012 as it did the year before.
He welcomed the arrest last month of Lin Yu Shin, the Taiwanese owner of Giant Ocean International Fishery and Co. Ltd. Rights groups believe the firm, now defunct, was responsible for trafficking some 1,000 Cambodians onto Thai fishing trawlers in recent years, often against their will and without pay.
“But still more [recruitment agency] owners are operating and pulling people into slave-like conditions,” he said.
Mr. Tola said the number of Cambodians who had gone to Malaysia for domestic work and reported by their families as missing was also on the rise.
Just Thursday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was repatriating six trafficked Cambodians from Malaysia. The International Organization for Migration, which is helping with the repatriation, said three of them were female domestic workers and the other three were men working on rubber plantations and in a fish factory.