Cambodia turns a corner on trafficking

Published: 26 June 2008 0:00 CET

Alex Wynter in Svay Rieng, Cambodia

The Cambodian Red Cross is determined to intensify its advocacy against human trafficking and sexual exploitation as well as its own programme response, according to Men Neary Sopheak, CRC deputy secretary general.

A ground-breaking three-year project, supported by the Danish Red Cross, one of the most experienced National Societies in this field, is shortly marking the first anniversary of its launch in July 2007.

“Now it includes assistance not just to the victims of traffickers,” says Men, “but also women who’ve been raped or suffered domestic violence.

“Women in the countryside are especially vulnerable. There’s very little protection and they are sometimes assaulted when moving from village to village or working alone in the fields.”

The CRC identified human trafficking as a priority in 2003, when it was incorporated into its overall strategy as a follow-up to the Manila action plan for Red Cross Red Crescent response to population movement and displacement.

“The national context has also helped us,” Men emphasizes. “The project fits the five-year neary rattanak [Khmer for “women are precious gems”] approach of the ministry of women’s affairs, as well as the government’s overall drive to enhance the role of women in rebuilding and development.”

But the decision to get involved in what are fundamentally law-enforcement issues was no easier for the CRC than for many other National Societies, Men says. “There was a lot of internal debate and we had to keep asking ourselves, what can the Red Cross actually do?

“One of the main problems with trafficking is that frightened women may not be willing to say openly that they’ve been trafficked.

“We went to meet girls in brothels to find out what they thought,” she recalls, “and came to the conclusion that health care is probably the best humanitarian entry-point for the Red Cross.”

“Very profitable”

The general climate surrounding the trafficking issue in Cambodia changed when the new “Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation” came into effect in February.

A national anti-trafficking task force was set up and the police launched operations against traffickers and brothels.

Then earlier this month the US State Department, in its authoritative annual Trafficking in Persons Report, took Cambodia off the “watch list” – a probationary group of countries facing demotion – in tier 2 of its three-tier system, saying the government was making “significant efforts” to eliminate trafficking.

The move, broadly welcomed by all the agencies and NGOs involved, was announced

Phnom Penh at a joint press conference by the US chargé d’affaires, Piper Campbell, and the Cambodian interior minister, Sar Kheng. Cambodia had been relegated to the lowest tier in 2005.

The government, many observers say, does now seem determined to roll back Cambodia’s reputation as a “source country” for trafficked women and girls and a destination for sex tourists – including, according to the State Department, “increasing reports” of foreign men looking under-age virgins. 

What she calls the “complexity and sensitivity” of the issues involved in the CRC’s Response to Human Trafficking Programme could be daunting – even for someone like Men Neary Sopheak, a Red Cross veteran and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who spent the Pol Pot years doing forced labour in the killing fields of Kampong Cham.

But if any National Society can offer useful expertise as the programme develops it is surely the Danish Red Cross (DRC), which for several years has hosted the European Red Cross/Red Crescent reference centre on human trafficking.

“The Cambodian programme has humanitarian values rather than law-enforcement issues, at its core,” says Jytte Roswall, the DRC’s country coordinator, who has lived in Phnom Penh for nearly four years.

“Though the CRC at least have to keep track of the legal issues, even if they don’t directly get involved.

“Cambodia is actually still rebuilding after long years of turmoil and civil war. Human trafficking adds to the problems of reconstruction and it persists for the simple reason that it’s very profitable.

“Many Cambodians are forced into what’s called ‘3D’ work that is dirty, degrading and dangerous. Sometimes all three.”

Fishing boats

In Cambodia and elsewhere, trafficking (despite the inclusion in the UN protocol defining it of “forced labour” and “servitude”) is sometimes mistakenly thought of as involving only girls and women for sexual exploitation.

“But it involves men too,” Roswall points out, “as we were reminded when our project incorporated the western Cambodian port of Koh Kong, on the Thai border.

“We got reliable reports of jobless young Cambodians getting work on fishing boats and never being heard of again.

“In one case, CRC volunteers found a Cambodian man who said he’d been paid about 15 US dollars a month for hard labour on a Thai fishing boat. After he got sick and too weak to work, he was simply fired. By the time the volunteers found him he hadn’t eaten for days.”

One of the main trafficking hot spots has long been the north-west province of Banteay Meancheay, on the border with Thailand, and the town of Poipet in particular, where the CRC held the first of four regional workshops on trafficking in 2006.

This area is overwhelmingly associated with the sex trade.

In south-east Svay Rieng province, bordering Vietnam, meanwhile, the Red Cross plans shortly to partner with a number of women’s shelters, run by local NGOs, with a view to providing referral services. Many are victims of rape and domestic violence.

CRC project manager, Sun Kanha, recently met a Red Cross client who had decided to keep two children she had by different men who raped her.         

“The father of the eldest child died,” says Sun, “while the baby’s father made a settlement of 200 US dollars. He lives nearby, but he doesn’t want anything to do with them.” 

The woman and her children have been taken in by neighbours. But in this remote part of the province, deep amongst the huge expanse of paddy fields and a good drive from any main road, it’s difficult to see how the case would have come to light without the CRC volunteers who also live there.

Sex work 

Perhaps inevitably, Cambodia’s new law and the police drive to enforce it have not been entirely uncontroversial.

On 4 June about 200 sex workers gathered in a meeting room in Phnom Penh to protest against the police operations and said they had been beaten and sexually abused in custody.

A police spokesman denied the allegations.

Then a group of about 30 sex workers, men and women, meditated together at Phonm Penh’s Neak Voan pagoda, asking the government to recognize what they insisted was voluntary sex work as a legitimate career choice, even when necessitated by poverty.

The drive against brothels may have triggered a national debate about whether sex work – prostitution – can ever truly be “voluntary”, a question unlikely ever to be conclusively settled, in Cambodia or anywhere else.

But it seems reasonable to believe the country has as good a chance as any in the region of tackling sexual exploitation in a humane way – especially with the Cambodian Red Cross fully involved.