Human trafficking out of Cambodia is on the rise, according to an Interior Ministry report released on Thursday, and is being fueled by relaxed border controls and economic disparity in the region, according to a separate U.N. report.
Last year, police rescued 295 victims of trafficking, more than half of whom were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, according to the report, which was released during an annual meeting on anti-human trafficking efforts at the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh.
These victims were part of 105 separate human trafficking cases, up from 95 cases in 2014, according to the report.
“In 2015, we noticed the activities of human trafficking and sexual exploitation are still increasing, although some of the activities have changed,” Yok Sokha, deputy National Police commissioner for human trafficking and juvenile protection, said at the meeting.
Lieutenant General Sokha said fishermen, domestic workers and prospective brides had emerged in recent years as the groups most vulnerable to becoming trafficking victims.
“The lack of information, education and poverty mean people in rural areas are easy to cheat,” she said. “Some local authorities have no knowledge about the problem. There is still a lack of cooperation at the local level.”
Phnom Penh, however, had the highest number of trafficking cases, with 56 victims rescued by police last year, the report says. Though the report does not give figures on how many people were rescued outside Cambodia, it notes that Thailand poses a particular danger to migrant workers.
Hundreds of Cambodians forced to work on Thai fishing vessels have been repatriated over the past year as the industry has come under increasing international scrutiny. The number of Cambodian women moving to China to marry Chinese men, often then finding themselves in abusive relationships or sold into the sex trade, has also spiked in recent years.
And while women entering domestic service abroad have been highly susceptible to abuse and debt bondage, the government is currently in talks with Malaysia and Saudi Arabia—countries with poor records of protecting migrant workers—to open the channel for domestic workers.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime released a report on Thursday called “Protecting Peace and Prosperity in Southeast Asia: Synchronizing Economic and Security Agendas,” which lists Cambodia among countries where people are at a “high-rising” risk of being trafficked.
“Unskilled labour migrants moving to Thailand, Singapore, India and China mainly come from less developed [countries] such as… Cambodia, Laos PDR, Myanmar, and Viet Nam,” it says.
A growing middle class in some countries in the region offers opportunity for workers from countries like Cambodia—but this also comes with a significant risk of exploitation, the report says.
“Human smugglers and traffickers take advantage of their economic vulnerability by forcing them to work in exploitative or even slave-like conditions,” the report says.
Increasingly relaxed border controls between countries in the region, intended to ease trade, make the role of law enforcement more difficult, the report adds.
“Changes to migration controls and freer labour regulations reduce risks and costs for smugglers and traffickers, while reducing the most basic tools available to law enforcement agencies,” it says.
Helen Sworn, founder and international director of anti-trafficking NGO Chab Dai, said the region was on the precipice of an unprecedented explosion of migration.
“Due to greater Asean integration and greater Mekong integration, we’re going to be seeing the movement of unskilled laborers on a scale like we’ve never seen before,” leaving many migrants vulnerable to trafficking, Ms. Sworn said.
“We have to see it not as a national issue, but see it as a regional issue,” she added. “Organizations between countries need to connect more and governments between countries need to connect more.”