leuk dek district, Kandal province – Since opening to tourists nearly three years ago, the Ka’am Samnor border checkpoint, located along the Vietnamese border on the banks of the Mekong River, has seen a steady increase in tourists taking advantage of the opportunity to travel on Cambodia’s waterways.
But as tourists stream across the border, so do Vietnamese women on their way to staff Cambodia’s flourishing sex industry, district residents said last week.
The Cambodian and Vietnamese checkpoints lie adjacent to the Mekong River and nothing can pass by without the knowledge of border officials. But villagers say people can cross the border easily on the vast flood plain to the west or in uncatchable speedboats on the wide waters of the Mekong to the east.
“I had brought some Vietnamese businesswomen coming along with some young girls who claimed themselves to be the daughters of the women,” said Lim Bunthoeun, 37, who ferries people between Neak Leung and Ka’am Samnor in his small motorboat. “But truly they were not. They were being trafficked from Vietnam.”
The “rings,” he said, prefer boats rather than motorcycles or cars because boats are faster. “The ring has a lot of experience on how to get across the border, and it is very hard for police to arrest them,” he said.
The US State Department estimated in a June report that between 700,000 and 4 million people worldwide are trafficked for sexual and/or labor exploitation. The report states that Cambodia is a “source, destination and transit country” for human trafficking, and said “Cambodia does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”
Although officials and observers agree there is more trafficking activity in Takeo province to the east, and Svay Rieng province to the west, this river border crossing is known to be porous.
“The last couple of years, there is a sort of steady trickle, particularly women and children [across the border near the Mekong], we think for sexual exploitation in Cambodia as well as to be sent onward to Thailand, Malaysia and maybe Indonesia,” said Graham Shaw, program officer for the UN Drugs and Crime Office. “There appears to be some kind of elements of police and military [officials] providing protection.”
Shaw suggested that existing border liaison offices, which facilitate cross border cooperation in combating drug trafficking, be expanded to other kinds of cross border crime, including human trafficking.
Traffickers, Lim Bunthoeun said, have many ways of getting girls across the border. Sometimes they acquire passports for the girls and other times they cut a deal with border police. Most times they bypass the border checkpoint altogether, he said. Usually they wait until they have smuggled between five and 10 girls into Cambodia before they hire a boat to Neak Leung, where they find a taxi to Phnom Penh.
“Nobody can arrest them after they get away from the [border] area,” Lim Bunthoeun said.
Border police at Ka’am Samnor declined to comment last week.
An official from the Ministry of Interior’s anti-human trafficking unit said the ministry has set up an investigation team of 60 officers who are currently undergoing training in border enforcement. They are being trained in the law and investigative techniques and will be sent to help enforce Cambodia’s borders.
The officers will be deployed to the seven immigration hot spots: Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Battambang, Kompong Cham, Kandal, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap provinces
Most residents of the tiny border town here were unwilling to give their names, fearing reprisals.
In the rainy season, Vietnamese women can avoid the authorities’ river domain altogether. Forgoing the patrolled area of the river in favor of the vast flood plain, they can cross the border by boat, outside the view of the border guards, disembarking in Cambodia and then walking a few hundred meters back to the road.
“If the police arrest them, they pay the police and they can go on. They can pay 70,000 riel (about $18) to the police, or else they will be sent back to Vietnam,” said one plantation worker in the paddy adjacent to the river.
The worker said she knows of a house near hers where a ringleader would bring girls one by one until he could transport them to Phnom Penh in a group.
“Everybody here knows the Vietnamese girls go to Phnom Penh to sell themselves for sex,” she said. She estimates that 300 Vietnamese women cross the border illegally each month.
Women can get through the border checkpoint for a mere 25,000 riel (about $6.50). Once on the Cambodian side, the first thing they do is look for a motorcycle, according to one motorcycle driver who lives near the border.
It costs 25,000 riel to cross the border. The motorcycle driver charges them an additional 13,000 riel (about $3.30) for a ride to Neak Leung where they can catch a taxi to Phnom Penh. He does it about five times per month. “It is very easy,” he says.
He has two license plates for his motorcycle. One Vietnamese and one Cambodian. He typically uses the Vietnamese plates, but switches to the Cambodian plates for the trip to Neak Leung.
“The police allow me to go back and forth across the border. I live here, they know me,” he said.