Government figures from six nations mostly glossed over the specifics of human trafficking at a regional forum on the topic in Phnom Penh on Thursday, but two well-positioned Cambodian officials said they were taking the opportunity to pressure into action their counterparts from countries that are common destinations for trafficked Cambodians.
Representatives from China, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia each delivered presentations espousing “capacity building” and “enhanced cooperation.” The countries later signed a joint statement, pledging to eradicate “any situation where human beings are traded, bought, sold, abducted, forced into marriage.”
Pressing issues such as the trafficking of Cambodian women to China to become brides and the enslavement of men on Thai fishing boats received barely a mention in scheduled proceedings.
On the sidelines of the summit, however, Brigadier General Sok Reaksmey, director of international cooperation at the Ministry of Interior’s general secretariat for combating trafficking in persons, said the event was an opportunity to impress his concerns on his foreign counterparts.
“We are most concerned about fake brides in China and Cambodians trafficked onto fishing boats,” Brig. Gen. Reaksmey said.
“On the sidelines, I can meet with officials from the relevant countries and discuss issues such as fake marriages,” he said. “I will suggest that we share more information about the causes of the problem.”
In the past month, the trafficking of Cambodians onto foreign fishing vessels—where they are confined, abused, overworked and underpaid—has also returned to the spotlight after dozens of Cambodians were among more than 300 enslaved fishermen rescued from a remote Indonesian island in early April. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is raising $40,000 in donor funds to repatriate the Cambodians.
Asked Thursday why the government had not committed to sponsoring flights home, Chou Bun Eng, secretary-general of the Interior Ministry’s committee to fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation, said: “So far we are working to identify [the fishermen]…. If we find that they are Cambodian victims, we will rescue them.”
Ms. Bun Eng also assured reporters that she would use this week’s summit, which ended Thursday, to “talk with receiving countries about specific issues” regarding the trafficking of Cambodians.
After Thursday’s event, Sara Piazzano, chief of party for Winrock International’s US Aid-funded countertrafficking program, said it was normal for governments to shirk their responsibilities when it came to repatriating trafficking victims.
Ms. Piazzano said her organization had repatriated 588 Cambodian victims over the past three years, with organizations such as the IOM helping to foot the bill.
“Or, in some cases, the families of victims are asked to pay and often end up indebted. Some victims do not come back, because their families are not able to pay,” she said.
“It may be possible that governments support, but in our experience, it did not happen.”