The number of Cambodian women heading overseas to marry South Korean men is skyrocketing, with a 500 percent increase in marriage licenses doled out from the South Korean embassy between 2006 and 2007, according to the International Organization for Migration.
While the exponential increase does not necessarily indicate proportional growth in trafficking or abuse-marriage brokerage agencies were legal until very recently when Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered all such companies closed earlier this month—it has raised substantial concern among those working to combat trafficking.
Large profits are being made by brokerage agencies, such as the high-profile Naverwedding agency from South Korea, where, IOM Project Coordinator John McGeoghan said Thursday, men pay up to $20,000 for a bride whose family might see $1,000 of that money if they’re lucky.
“The marriages happen quickly, and lots of money is being made,” he said.
“Where you have this happening in the informal sector without government regulation, you must have abuses or exploitation.”
“There’s not much evidence of trafficking…. But it’s a red flag of some kind,” McGeoghan said, adding that the brides are particularly vulnerable.
They tend to be young at 20 or 21 years of age, illiterate, and from impoverished backgrounds. Most lack the full knowledge of what life will be like on the other side and don’t realize they are likely to be working on a farm much like the one they left, picking vegetables.
The men are usually blue-collar farmers or industrial workers in their 30s who are losing out in the fierce competition for brides among an increasingly urban population.
For many potential brides, it’s a rational choice to better their station in life—though perhaps not one borne entirely of free will, with parents enthusiastically endorsing the idea and standing to benefit from money their daughters promise to send home.
“They’re watching Korean soap operas…and they don’t realize that they will be living in a rural area. There are cultural differences, language differences,” McGeoghan said.
“It could work out fine, but we are now seeing cases where that isn’t so…and what happens on the other end if it doesn’t work out?” he asked, adding that more research needs to be done into other forms of coercion and deception that might be at play.
The South Korean embassy reported that 1,759 couples sought marriage licenses in 2007, and IOM said that in the previous year, only 365 licenses were given. In 2005, the embassy gave 151 licenses, and only 72 in 2004.
Another reason behind the increase could be that some brokerage agencies have been pushed in from Vietnam, either as a result of a government crackdown or, conversely, growing competition between agencies in Vietnam, he added.
“It’s all part of globalization, the free movement of goods, services and people,” he said. “It’s a symptom of the opening up of Cambodia.”
One reason there is no evidence of systemic exploitation in South Korea could be because the spike in numbers is still so new, he added.
In Taiwan, for instance, where men have sought Cambodian brides for many years, abuse is rampant, according to Nop Sarin Sreyroth, secretary-general for the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center.
She said there are an estimated 5,219 Cambodian brides living there, the majority of whom she said have suffered some form of abuse.
CWCC interviewed 21 Cambodian brides on a recent trip to Taiwan and Nop Sarin Sreyroth said that two had been sold outright to restaurants where they were being exploited for labor and kept against their will. Most others reported some form of sexual abuse, such as being forced to have sex with a member of their new household who was not their husband.
Nop Sarin Sreyroth said that about 90 percent of the brides were from Kompong Cham province, something she attributed to the fact that women there are thought to be particularly beautiful.
These marriages were largely negotiated by individuals, rather than large agencies, and men typically paid between $10,000 and $20,000 for a bride, while brides reported seeing as little as $300 of that money, she said.
Nop Sarin Sreyroth said the phenomenon has been decreasing in Taiwan—something she attributed to educational efforts in Cambodia, but others say is due to Cambodia’s One-China policy, which has significantly curtailed transactions with Taiwan.
Kristy Fleming, a technical adviser at the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, voiced concern Thursday over the “unbalanced power dynamic” between the men from developed countries seeking brides in poorer countries, like Cambodia, and the mainly disadvantaged women they encounter on the other side of the equation.
“The government needs to address the unbalanced power dynamic and ensure the protection of Cambodian women without diminishing their opportunities and freedom of choice,” she wrote by e-mail.
Women’s Affairs Ministry Secretary of State You Ay, who heads the government’s anti-trafficking task force, said Thursday that she is very concerned about the growing numbers of brides flocking to South Korea and that the government has already begun taking action.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen shut down all the Korean marriage companies. We still have some that are not formal, who came to Cambodia and are not registered,” she said.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng, to whom You Ay’s task force answers, said in early March that he had personally revoked the licenses of two South Korean companies registered in Cambodia since 2006.
“We cannot allow such businesses in our country,” he said.
“The understanding of our citizens is very poor. They hear the announcement and they just think about money…. It’s a kind of clear pattern of trafficking,” Sar Kheng added.
Officials at the South Korean embassy were reticent to speak on the issue, but Second Secretary Kim In-kook said the increase alone is not grounds for concern.
“An increase does not necessarily mean good or bad,” said Kim, who declined to comment further.
Ros Chivy, who is in charge of administering visas, at the South Korean embassy expressed concern that the potential brides, most of whom are poor and illiterate, could be vulnerable to exploitation, but said that rigorous interviews take place to ensure the marriages are in good faith.
Most potential brides claim to be able to handle life in South Korea and say they “just want to find a good future,” she said.
“If she gives me a wrong answer, I could say no,” Ros Chivy said, adding that she doesn’t deny licenses very often.
McGeoghan said the embassy closely monitors the licensing process and that some agencies are working in South Korea to assist foreign brides.
But even so, he said there needs to be more awareness raising among families in Cambodia about what life in Korea is really like—the good and the bad—as well as language and pre-departure orientation-a process he called “taking out the risk element.”
More counseling in Korea is needed for the foreign brides, and a “safety net for those who decide to leave,” he said, adding that there is no funding at present to repatriate brides who express the wish to do so.
With heightened pre-departure training, the numbers of brides might not necessarily decrease, he said, but of the marriages that do follow through, more are likely to work out in the end with realistic expectations on both sides.
“It might just become a more attractive process,” McGeoghan said.