Updated: ‘Abolish Slave Compounds’: Groups Call for Urgent Investigation, Response

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A police station outside the ‘Chinatown’ area of Sihanoukville, in November 2021. (Cindy Liu/VOD)

A major intergovernmental response is urgently needed to address a crisis of forced labor, slavery and torture in Cambodia, a collective of 35 civil society groups said on Thursday.

Thousands of people are entrapped, often foreign nationals who have been kidnapped, sold, trafficked or tricked into accepting jobs in Cambodia, the groups said in a statement, citing victim accounts and media reports. 

“Once in Cambodia, they are detained in large compounds and forced to work, often conducting online scam operations targeting foreign nationals outside the country,” their statement said. “Workers who escape report having faced physical and mental threats and violence at the hands of their captors.”

The embassies of Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan and China have issued warnings about the situation, the statement added.

“The continued existence of these operations is a tragedy, and we are horrified that Cambodia is being used as a base for such inhumanity. All relevant actors must immediately guarantee that no one is subject to slavery or torture within Cambodia,” the statement said.

Cambodian authorities had responded to a handful of individual complaints, but “this crisis cannot be resolved on a case-by-case basis,” it said. Instead, the signed groups called on the Cambodian and foreign governments, as well as local and international organizations including U.N. bodies, to coordinate a mass response.

In that, the government should fully investigate and abolish all compounds linked with illegal gambling and fraud operations and associated forced labor, slavery or torture, the statement said. The state should also investigate alleged complicity between some government authorities and the criminal enterprises, the statement read.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the government had worked to make sure there was no slavery in the country.

“It is a principle, it is law,” Siphan said. “We oppose it, we have banned it.”

“As a government, we are strict against all forms of workers becoming slaves. We strongly oppose any actions of enslavement, and if individuals are in trouble, they can file a complaint to the authorities to defend their rights.”

Among the signatories to the statement are rights groups Adhoc, Cambodian Center for Human Rights and Licadho; anti-human trafficking group International Justice Mission; and Transparency International. VOD’s parent organization the Cambodian Center for Independent Media is also a signatory.

Most compounds are located in Sihanoukville, but similar abuses have been reported in Phnom Penh, Pursat, Koh Kong and other provinces, the civil society statement said.

Updated at 3:27 p.m. to disclose that VOD’s parent organization also signed the statement.

Updated at 4:32 p.m. with comments from Phay Siphan.

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