The country’s top anti-trafficking official said Cambodia would investigate news reports of rampant human trafficking in the country, as a rights group noted how neither the government nor civil society were positioned to look at the emergent type of trafficking.
The official said the country had cooperated with the U.S. on human trafficking measures and was disappointed the efforts were not enough to prevent the country from sliding down in U.S. ratings this week.
In its ”Trafficking in Persons” report, the U.S. downgraded Cambodia to be a “Tier 3” state — the lowest rank — citing human trafficking at scam operations, in the entertainment industry and among migrant workers. The ranking allows for restrictions to foreign assistance by the U.S. president.
Over the past year, hundreds of foreign nationals have been removed from debt slavery at scam compounds across Cambodia, and those who have escaped have spoken of thousands of workers perpetrating crimes online while being barred from leaving.
The U.S. report suggested official complicity in the industry.
But Chou Bun Eng, permanent vice chair of the national counter-trafficking committee, said this was only the news, and should not be used as a reflection of Cambodia’s overall anti-trafficking efforts.
“In this global evaluation, taking the news to make an evaluation of the whole country’s effort — I think it is an injustice,” Bun Eng said.
“Now we are investigating it because we cannot take the information that has been disseminated as the whole truth. We acknowledge it might be true, but of that we are not clear yet,” she said. “Sometimes when we investigate thoroughly it is not true.”
Speaking at a roundtable discussion on Thursday, she said the downgrade felt like an indictment that “the government does not care or pay attention” — which she said the U.S. should know to be false as they had worked together on counter-trafficking.
“We have worked hard,” said Bun Eng. “[The report implies] we have done nothing — this makes us feel disappointed. It is not suitable considering our effort.”
Bun Eng, who is also an Interior Ministry secretary of state, added that she was not the only one disturbed by the downgrade.
“Even nongovernmental organizations and international partners who worked with each other also feel it is unacceptable, and we will wait and see what their reaction is,” she said.
Mom Sok Cha, director of Legal Support for Children and Women, said he had not seen the U.S. report and could not comment. Chum Phally, deputy chief of party for the USAID-funded Cambodia Countering Trafficking in Persons, said he also could not comment.
Kong Villa, director of Cambodia Against Child Trafficking Networks, said Cambodia should have been promoted, not downgraded.
“I think all these cases truly happened, but this has just happened recently, and we should not use these recent cases to push Cambodia to fall into that rank because our Cambodia has worked lot and drafted other laws and policies for the people and migration and human trafficking victims,” Villa said. “I think the government has tried so hard.”
Saim Meas, deputy head of the women and children’s section at rights group Adhoc, said Bun Eng’s counter trafficking committee worked mostly on Cambodian victims being trafficked abroad. The trafficking within Cambodia was newer, and as of yet unaddressed, Meas said.
“In some provinces, scams, especially, have boomed, and it is hard to control. Even we as civil society find it difficult to work on those cases,” Meas said. “Inside the country it seems to be a new trend that they are not ready for. … Law enforcement and other factors create hesitation to push for rescues.”