Widespread corruption among government officials is thwarting Cambodia’s efforts to combat human trafficking, the U.S. State Department said in an annual assessment that upgraded the country’s ranking, but found that it still failed to meet minimum standards.
Cambodian men continue to be forced into labor on Thai fishing boats; women are trafficked to Malaysia for domestic work; brides are sent to China; and poor children are made to beg in Thailand and Vietnam, according to the Trafficking in Persons report, which was released on Thursday night.
“Endemic corruption at all levels of the government severely limited the ability of individual officials to make progress in holding traffickers accountable,” the report says.
Cambodia was upgraded to Tier 2, the report’s middle ranking, from last year’s Tier 2 Watch List. The report states that Cambodia does not meet the minimum standards necessary to eliminate trafficking, but “is making significant efforts to do so.”
It acknowledges the government’s prevention efforts and progress in protecting victims, but notes that corrupt officials in Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia are working with brokers to traffick victims, and that criminal cases involving perpetrators with apparent political ties are often foiled.
The report also faults the government’s failure to issue formal guidelines that would allow the use of undercover investigative techniques, which means that police must build cases against suspected traffickers without evidence obtained while undercover.
A 2010 amendment to Cambodia’s Criminal Code that criminalizes the covert collection of audio, video and photo evidence has frustrated NGOs that use their own trained investigative teams to pursue sex trafficking cases.
Chou Bun Eng, secretary-general of the Interior Ministry’s committee to fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation, welcomed Cambodia’s improved ranking and said corruption complaints were taken seriously.
“We are not passive. We always take action in regards to complaints,” she said. “Where we find the case, we always take action, not only corruption cases, [but] any activity against people linked to trafficking in persons.”
Eric Meldrum, investigations director for Agape International Missions’ AIM SWAT team, which focuses on the sex trade, said the ability to do undercover work would make human trafficking investigations much easier.
“It would definitely help. There’s no doubt about that. But that’s not to say you can’t do human trafficking investigations [without it],” he said.
Mr. Meldrum said law enforcement had improved over the past year, but that corruption remained a problem.
“It is difficult to prosecute people that may be linked in at higher levels, but that’s not unusual to Cambodia,” he said.
Samleang Seila, country director of anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants, agreed that laws allowing law enforcement to use covert techniques were needed.
“It would be a necessary tool for law enforcement to escalate their activities into human trafficking offenses, but at the moment I believe this is not the only obstacle,” he said.
“Cases should be properly investigated, timely, and the whole justice system needs to be victim-protection focused.”