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CAMBODIA: Tier 2 Watch List

The Government of Cambodia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated significant efforts during the reporting period, including by continuing to prosecute and convict traffickers; increasing law enforcement training; and taking steps to raise awareness on and incentivize safe migration to primary destination countries. However, the government did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. Authorities did not adequately collect or share key information on law enforcement efforts. Corruption continued to impede law enforcement operations, criminal proceedings, and victim service provision. Against a backdrop of insufficient government oversight and accountability measures, authorities did not investigate credible reports of official complicity with unscrupulous business owners who subjected thousands of men, women, and children throughout the country to human trafficking via debt-based coercion—particularly in brick kilns. In several high-profile cases, the government used anti-trafficking legislation and law enforcement resources to target political opposition figures and other non-traffickers attempting to document the country’s trafficking circumstances. Authorities did not issue formal guidance allowing the use of undercover investigative techniques in anti-trafficking operations—a factor that continued to impede officials’ ability to fully hold sex traffickers accountable. Therefore Cambodia was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List.

Respecting due process, vigorously investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses and convict and adequately penalize sex and labor traffickers, including complicit officials, with significant prison sentences. • Authorize the use of undercover investigative techniques for anti-trafficking operations. • Strengthen efforts to fully implement the nationwide protocol for proactive victim identification among vulnerable groups and train officials on its provisions. • Increase labor inspections in high-vulnerability professions, especially at brick kilns, fisheries, and plantations, with a focus on identifying debt bondage. • Increase the availability of services for male victims, especially men and boys exploited in commercial fishing. • Increase inspection and oversight of lending institutions, including private micro-finance organizations, to reduce vulnerability to debt-based coercion among economically disadvantaged communities. • Increase efforts to incentivize victims’ participation in criminal and civil proceedings, including by granting permission to work, temporary residency, or other relevant immigration status to foreign victims wishing to remain in country during proceedings. • Modify the law to allow restitution upon conviction of the trafficker, and establish and train the relevant officials on standard operating procedures for calculating and granting restitution. • Establish and allocate resources to implement systematic procedures at diplomatic missions to assist Cambodian victims abroad, including in countries without Cambodian diplomatic representation. • Strengthen efforts to inspect private labor recruitment agencies and their sub-licensed brokers for fraudulent recruitment and other trafficking indicators. • Increase public awareness on proper travel document application procedures to facilitate safe, legal migration. • Implement a system for monitoring, collecting, and reporting data on anti-trafficking prosecution and victim protection efforts, and disseminate data among the relevant government agencies in a manner that protects victims’ identities and privacy. • Strengthen efforts to incorporate NGO input into the policy for formally transferring custody of child victims. • Allocate increased resources to anti-human trafficking police to better facilitate the monitoring of defendants released under judicial supervision pending trial.

The government maintained insufficient law enforcement efforts, and authorities wasted investigative and prosecutorial resources in furtherance of spurious, politically motivated charges against opposition figures, journalists, and other individuals attempting to document trafficking in the country. The 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of seven to 15 years’ imprisonment for offenses involving an adult victim, and 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment for those involving a child victim; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The Anti-Human Trafficking Juvenile Police (AHTJP) attempted to monitor and record information on the cases it investigated, but the government did not collect comprehensive data on overall law enforcement efforts, particularly among provincial courts. Where data were available, some government bodies were reportedly reluctant to share it internally with other key interagency stakeholders. The government reported authorities arrested 150 domestic and foreign nationals in connection with 39 cases of “non-sexual human trafficking” and 21 cases of sex trafficking (unreported in 2017). Courts prosecuted 421 trafficking cases (207 in 2017); however, observers noted the number of definitional trafficking cases within these 421 was likely much lower, as authorities did not disaggregate statistics on rape and trafficking. As with prosecutions, conviction statistics were limited due to insufficient data collection methods. The National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT) reported the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted 125 traffickers (129 in 2017). The government did not provide data on sentencing, but courts reportedly continued to convict suspects on lesser charges and conclude sex trafficking cases with monetary settlements in lieu of prison sentences. Victims whose families received out-of-court settlements from traffickers often changed their testimony, further complicating prosecutions.

In conjunction with an NGO, Preah Sihanouk anti-trafficking police trained a network of lay monitors in the taxi, tourism, hospitality, and retail industries to detect and report incidents of trafficking; however, authorities did not report identifying or initiating investigations into trafficking cases as a result of this effort. Nationwide, law enforcement authorities often did not take appropriate action against suspected or convicted traffickers. Judicial police lacked the resources to monitor the increasing number of defendants released on “judicial supervision” pending trial, allowing many to flee prior to their trial dates. Authorities did not always issue arrest warrants for absconded defendants. Citing resource constraints, prosecutors and investigating judges did not advance all of the trafficking cases for which police had supplied evidence. Authorities abused law enforcement resources to detain, prosecute, and convict some individuals on politically motivated trafficking charges, further bringing into question the veracity of the anti-trafficking data—and the resource constraints—reported by the government. Two journalists from an international media outlet and a former National Assembly candidate from an unjustly banned political opposition party remained in detention under spurious trafficking charges at the end of the reporting period. Authorities also filed spurious criminal charges against civilians attempting to document the country’s human trafficking challenges. In December, authorities successfully extradited a Cambodian documentarian from Thailand and charged him with “incitement” for having assisted a foreign media outlet in producing a film about trafficking victims in Cambodia; he remained in pre-trial detention at the end of the reporting period, and authorities elected not to investigate the cases he was attempting to report through the documentary. Local experts continued to report that cases involving foreign suspects were more likely to result in trafficking convictions than cases involving Cambodian suspects, for whom charges were often reduced to less serious offenses.

The government maintained MOUs outlining cross-border anti-trafficking investigation with Thailand and Vietnam, as well as an extradition treaty with the former, but did not report investigating or extraditing any suspected traffickers under their auspices in 2018. Authorities continued to deliver donor-designed and -funded training on the implementation of anti-trafficking laws to police, prosecutors, judges, and other government officials. During the reporting period, the NCCT delivered 234 trainings to 6,321 law enforcement officers on anti-trafficking laws, investigative techniques, and evidence collection (66 trainings to 1,577 officers in 2017); for the second year, it did not report how many commune and provincial officials, judicial staff, and NGO workers participated in these sessions (7,689 in 2016). Despite these training sessions, many police—particularly in rural areas—were unaware of how to conduct anti-trafficking work, as most did not receive training on basic law enforcement techniques. Local organizations and some officials continued to stress an urgent need for more sophisticated evidence collection techniques, including undercover investigation, to decrease reliance on witness testimony and improve efforts to detect and combat sex trafficking. However, the government did not grant undercover investigative authority to anti-trafficking police units, except in rare cases when requested for child sex tourism raids conducted alongside foreign law enforcement agencies. This continued to significantly constrain law enforcement officers’ ability to address the increasingly clandestine nature of sex trafficking operations in Cambodia. Government bodies in favor of formalizing undercover investigative authority continued formal negotiations with opposing entities on possible reforms, but they did not reach consensus, and some observers questioned the efficacy of the consultative process writ large.

Endemic corruption at all levels of government severely limited the ability of individual officials to make progress in holding traffickers accountable. The Cambodian national police maintained a mechanism for NGO workers to report incidents of corruption among anti-trafficking police, but it did not field any complaints during the reporting period. Local officials facilitated cross-border trafficking by accepting bribes for forging identity documents. One NGO noted law enforcement raids on sex trafficking establishments were sometimes unsuccessful due to advance warning from working-level police. However, some provincial police chiefs reportedly worked to minimize these leaks by turning over cases to the AHTJP, which conducted independent raids without notifying the local authorities until moments before they began. Some corrupt officials may have profited directly from establishments suspected of sex and labor trafficking. NGO observers claimed some Cambodian police officers also solicited commercial sex with minors during the reporting period. One NGO alleged prosecutors and judges accepted bribes in return for dismissal of charges and acquittals. Corrupt officials often thwarted progress in cases where the perpetrators were believed to have political, criminal, or economic ties to government officials. Despite these trends, the government did not investigate, prosecute, or convict any government employees complicit in trafficking, nor did it take any punitive measures against Phnom Penh’s former anti-trafficking police chief, who was ultimately promoted to a higher government position after his 2011 trafficking conviction was overturned in an unannounced, closed-door Supreme Court hearing in 2013.

The government decreased protection efforts. Despite maintaining victim identification guidelines developed by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSAVY) in early 2017, victim identification, referral, and repatriation efforts remained disparate and underdeveloped across law enforcement agencies. Authorities did not provide complete statistics on the number of victims they assisted or referred. The government continued implementing a regulation barring NGOs from representing individuals seeking formal recognition as trafficking victims. Under this arrangement—which NGOs claimed severely intimidated victims and their families—victims were required to approach the Ministry of Interior for the formal identification needed to access protection services. With assistance from an international organization, the government continued to operate two transit centers in the border city of Poipet, where it screened for trafficking victims among the approximately 70,225 migrants deported from Thailand in 2017 (70,5000 in 2017). However, it did not report identifying any victims through this center; given the high vulnerability to trafficking among this population and the lack of universal implementation of victim identification standards, many victims likely transited the center unidentified.

The government operated a temporary shelter in Phnom Penh for female victims of trafficking and other crimes, and it referred trafficking victims to donor-funded NGO shelters—most of which cared for victims of several forms of abuse—to receive further assistance. MOSAVY reportedly maintained guidelines outlining minimum standards for residential care of trafficking victims and disseminated them among NGO shelters during the reporting period. The government continued to rely heavily on NGOs to protect trafficking victims; however, it did not facilitate formal transfer of custody for child victims, leaving organizations that accepted child victims vulnerable to court action. Ongoing custody issues reportedly dissuaded some NGO shelters from protecting residents’ freedom of movement, contrary to best practices. Although some anti-trafficking NGOs enjoyed cooperation with the authorities, including through receipt of in-kind support, increasing restrictions on civil society hindered the operations of key anti-trafficking NGOs during the reporting period. Provisions allowing for financial settlements in lieu of harsher sentencing further discouraged some families from consenting to temporary guardianship at shelters; absent family consent, government officials at times returned children to high-risk environments, leaving them vulnerable to re-victimization. Despite the prominence of male labor trafficking victims, assistance for this population remained limited.

Cambodian diplomatic missions overseas continued to lack adequate funding and capacity to provide basic assistance or repatriate victims, despite government action in prior years to train diplomats on migrant worker protections. Victims identified in countries without Cambodian diplomatic representation had access to even less support. One study conducted by an international organization during the previous reporting period found only 21 percent of migrant workers sought assistance for labor abuses experienced abroad, including forced labor. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MFAIC), which bore the primary responsibility of aiding Cambodian trafficking victims, reported repatriating and providing limited services to 8,489 Cambodians from six countries, including 330 women from Thailand, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia. However, unlike the previous reporting period, authorities did not specify what portion of these returnees were trafficking victims (986 from 11 nine countries in 2017). An international organization assisted in the majority of these repatriations. Observers believed these figures represented only a small fraction of the number of Cambodians subjected to trafficking abroad, particularly in the fishing industry. The MFA did not promulgate or implement standard operating procedures for the identification and referral of Cambodian victims abroad, leaving many Cambodians without the assistance necessary to repatriate legally and safely. According to local NGOs, some returned victims had been unable to secure assistance from Cambodian consular services in China, Korea, and Thailand due to unattended hotlines and unresponsive staff; others confined in forced labor conditions abroad, including in Malaysia, were unable to convince Cambodian consular staff they were in need of assistance. Cambodia also maintained labor attachés at embassies in Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand—the countries with the highest number of Cambodian migrant workers—but did not provide data on their involvement in identifying or assisting labor trafficking victims.

The number of Cambodian returnees subjected to trafficking abroad was likely much higher than reported due to an increasing tendency among these groups to return via informal migration channels, and due to insufficient victim identification procedures. MOSAVY reported assisting in the repatriation of 222 Cambodians identified by foreign governments and NGOs in 2018, including 61 from Malaysia, 20 from Thailand, 89 from China, 21 from Somalia, 29 from Vietnam, and two from Saudi Arabia (243 total in 2017). Of these, 109 were victims of forced labor. According to MOSAVY, 96 of the individuals had been involved in forced or fraudulent marriages, and authorities did not report whether these cases featured corollary sex trafficking or forced labor indicators. The remainder were sex trafficking victims. MOSAVY reported referring all 222 individuals to NGOs (unreported in 2017; 62 referred by MOSAVY in 2016). MOSAVY also reported providing reintegration services to 303 Cambodian trafficking victims and referring an additional 848 individuals to NGOs for rehabilitation services; some of these cases may have been identified in a previous year, and they likely included victims of other forms of abuse. Local police referred 235 sex and labor trafficking victims to provincial social service providers and NGOs for further protections (179 in 2017 and 326 in 2016). One NGO provided assistance to 180 Cambodians who had experienced sex trafficking, forced labor or conditions indicative thereof in the fishing industry, and abuses that may have amounted to trafficking in relation to forced or fraudulent marriage.

There was no legal provision to offer work permits, temporary residency, or other immigration status to foreign victims wishing to remain in Cambodia to participate in civil or criminal proceedings. The government required the repatriation of foreign victims, except in rare cases, and did not provide legal alternatives to their removal regardless of whether they would face hardship or retribution upon return to their countries of origin. MOSAVY did not repatriate any foreign trafficking victims during the reporting period (two Vietnamese victims repatriated in early 2018, three in 2017, and 13 in 2016). Insufficient victim identification efforts left many potential victims at risk of law enforcement action, including punitive deportation without prior screening. Law enforcement often did not keep victims and perpetrators separated during interviews. NGOs noted police made some progress in implementing child-friendly practices during the reporting period, and government social workers reported cooperation with the AHTJP, including in timely victim intake and referral procedures. However, provincial courts did not universally implement a child-friendly judicial program initiated in 2016 allowing for video-conferencing technology as an alternative to direct cross-examination of victims in front of the accused. Cambodia’s weak and corrupt legal system and the lack of adequate victim and witness protection, exacerbated by a lengthy trial process and fear of retaliation by traffickers, hindered victims’ willingness to cooperate in many cases. Victims were theoretically eligible for restitution, although it was extremely difficult to obtain due to a legal requirement delaying payment until after the completion of the trafficker’s jail term; convicted traffickers’ frequent abscondment further complicated this arrangement. Observers noted Cambodia lacked a standard operating procedure for determining how to calculate restitution or compensation. Victims rarely received the amount promised, and many victims’ families settled out of court with traffickers or accepted bribes to drop the relevant charges.

The government maintained prevention efforts. An interagency committee and its secretariat coordinated anti-trafficking activities and initiated a draft 2019-2023 national action plan; however, the government had not approved the plan by the end of the reporting period. The government continued to operate on a budget of 4.9 billion riels ($1.19 million) allocated in the previous reporting period to fund this interagency committee, but observers noted this figure was still insufficient. Subsidiary provincial anti-trafficking committees, which reportedly continued to receive modest central government funds and assistance from NGOs, coordinated efforts at the local level to mirror the activities of the national action plan. With the help of international donors, eight out of nine of these committees created their own provincial-level action plans and submitted them to the government (six in 2017 and five in 2016). The secretariat of the NCCT maintained a working group to monitor the efforts of the interagency committee as well as those of its provincial subcommittees. Commune-level budgetary allocations for trafficking prevention increased during the reporting period; however, NGOs noted the provincial committees’ ad hoc reliance on insufficient surplus funds from General Social Services—rather than on their own annual budgets—undermined the scope and sustainability of their work. Lack of coordinating guidance from the national counterpart committee further impeded their effectiveness. The NCCT continued to produce an annual report documenting the government’s holistic anti-trafficking efforts; however, as in prior years, the report was not exhaustive amid insufficient data collection. For the second year, the government hosted an interfaith forum on combating trafficking attended by high-level government officials and thousands of clerical leaders.

The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training (MOLVT) maintained a separate action plan aimed at reducing child labor and debt bondage in the service, agricultural, mining, and energy sectors by 2025 through awareness raising, legal action, and collaboration with civil society, funded in part through the national budget. Unlike in prior years, the government did not report investigating or prosecuting labor recruiters for illegal practices that may have contributed to or involved trafficking; officials and NGO observers noted labor officials’ failure to sufficiently inspect private recruitment agencies, and the ability of these agencies to sub-license their names to independent brokers, continued to perpetuate widespread labor exploitation. Some of these agencies were reportedly directly involved in deceptive recruitment practices leading to trafficking.

The government continued to carry out awareness-raising activities, including through more than 33,000 NCCT information “dissemination events” and 25,000 public fora. The General Department of Immigration issued 92,081 border passes to Cambodians living in western border regions to incentivize safe labor migration to Thailand. The MOLVT also reported providing pre-departure orientation to almost 69,000 Cambodians migrating abroad for work. However, many Cambodians were reportedly unaware of how to apply for travel documentation or how much it should cost—leaving them at higher risk of travel through vulnerable means—and the government did not take sufficient steps to publicize that information. The MFAIC continued to implement consular screening measures to reduce the sex- and labor trafficking of Cambodian women via forced and fraudulent marriages, including by assessing applicants against trafficking victim profiles jointly developed with China in 2016. However, the MFA did not report referring these potential victims to law enforcement or protective services. The government maintained two labor recruitment agreements with Saudi Arabia, a domestic worker recruitment agreement with Hong Kong, and a bilateral cooperative agreement with India. During the reporting period, the NCCT also signed an action plan with China on joint prevention, investigation, and capacity building.

Observers noted cumbersome registration requirements and government officials’ close affiliation with certain employers obstructed labor inspectors’ access to brick kilns and prevented kiln workers from forming organizations to advocate for their labor rights. The Ministry of Tourism held workshops for hotel staff and government officials on preventing child sexual exploitation in the hospitality industry. As in prior years, the government generally focused on deterring foreign involvement in child sex tourism, rather than targeting campaigns to the local population that constituted the main source of demand for commercial sex with children in Cambodia. Authorities reported arresting eight foreign individuals suspected of engaging in child sex tourism (five in 2017 and 12 in 2016) but did not report whether they initiated prosecutions in any of these cases. Local experts reported concern over the government’s ongoing failure to impose appropriate punishments on foreign nationals who purchased commercial sex acts with children.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers subject Cambodian men, women, and children to forced labor and sex trafficking in Cambodia and abroad. They also subject victims from other countries to trafficking in Cambodia, and they use Cambodia as a transit point to subject victims from other countries to trafficking elsewhere in Asia. Cambodian adults and children migrate to other countries within the region and increasingly to the Middle East for work; traffickers force many to work on fishing vessels, in agriculture, in construction, in factories, and in domestic servitude—often through debt-based coercion—or subject them to sex trafficking. Migrants using irregular migration channels, predominantly with the assistance of unlicensed brokers, are at an increased risk of trafficking, although those using licensed recruiting agents also become victims of forced labor or sex trafficking. Cambodian participants in the Japanese government’s guest worker program have reported conditions indicative of forced labor. Children from impoverished families are vulnerable to forced labor, often with the complicity of their families, including in domestic servitude and forced begging or street vending in Thailand and Vietnam. Undocumented Cambodian labor migrants working in Thailand—constituting up to 40 percent of the 1.5 million Cambodians there—are at high risk of trafficking due to their immigration status, as are Cambodians deported from Vietnam. Traffickers continue to recruit significant numbers of Cambodian men and boys in Thailand to work on fishing boats and subject them to forced labor on Thai-owned and -operated vessels in international waters. Cambodian victims escaping from their traffickers have been identified in Malaysia, Indonesia, Mauritius, Fiji, Senegal, South Africa, and Papua New Guinea. Cambodian men working on Thai-owned and -operated fishing vessels report deceptive recruitment tactics, severe physical abuse, underpayment or nonpayment of wages, restrictions on access to medical care, and confinement at sea for years at a time without permission to come ashore. Traffickers recruit a significant number of women from rural areas under false pretenses to travel to China to enter into marriages with Chinese men, who often incur as much as $20,000 in debt to brokers facilitating the transaction; the men force some of these women to work in factories or subject them to sex trafficking to repay this debt. Cambodian women serving willingly as illegal surrogates for Chinese families are vulnerable to confinement and domestic servitude. Although specific information is limited, violent extremists reportedly employ deceptive recruitment tactics to lure a small number of Cambodian children to armed insurgency training centers in rural Thailand. Stateless persons, namely in ethnic Vietnamese communities, are at higher risk of trafficking due to lack of identity documentation necessary for access to formal employment, education, marriage registration, the court system, or the right to own land.

The proprietors of brick kilns subject at least 10,000 Cambodian men, women, and children—often entire families—to multigenerational debt-based coercion, either by buying off their preexisting loans, or by requiring them to take out new loans as a condition of employment or to cover medical expenses resulting from injuries incurred while working. An NGO study conducted in 2017 found nearly 100 percent of brick kilns surveyed throughout the country featured indicators of forced labor via debt-based coercion. An extensive, largely unregulated network of predatory microfinance organizations and private creditors contributes to this arrangement by proactively advertising loans to families in vulnerable communities and connecting them with the kilns. Rural farming families are at higher risk of this form of forced labor due to economic hardships ensuing from climate change; unseasonal rain patterns and subsequent loss of crops push many farmers to take out large loans for new irrigation or pesticide systems, and brick kiln owners often purchase these loans as a means of securing and retaining their labor. Extended rainy seasons also delay the brick-drying process, reducing these bonded kiln workers’ pay and forcing many to become further indebted to the kiln owners. In order to dissuade workers from fleeing abusive conditions, some kiln owners reportedly allow only select members of family units to be absent for public holidays or to seek medical care at any given time. Some workers report continued confinement and forced labor in the kilns long after they have repaid their debts. Traffickers also subject children as young as 13 to domestic servitude and labor on riparian and oceanic fishing boats, in karaoke bars, and on cassava plantations to pay off family debts accrued through this system. Communities displaced by illegal logging operations supplying the brick kilns with timber for fuel may be at elevated risk of trafficking, including in logging itself and elsewhere as a result of concomitant economic hardships.

All of Cambodia’s 25 provinces are sources for human trafficking. Sex trafficking is largely clandestine; Cambodian and ethnic Vietnamese women and girls move from rural areas to cities and tourist destinations, where criminals subject them to sex trafficking in brothels and, more frequently, clandestine sex establishments at beer gardens, massage parlors, salons, karaoke bars, retail spaces, and non-commercial sites. Cambodian men form the largest source of demand for children exploited in sex trafficking; however, men from elsewhere in Asia, Europe, the United States, Australia, and South Africa travel to Cambodia to engage in child sex tourism, increasingly facilitated through social media contact. Thousands of urban children left behind by families migrating abroad for work are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor. Vietnamese women and children, many of whom are victims of debt-based coercion, travel to Cambodia and are subjected to sex trafficking. NGOs report criminal gangs transport some Vietnamese victims through Cambodia before they are exploited in Thailand and Malaysia. Traffickers in Cambodia are most commonly family or community members or small networks of independent brokers. Some Cambodian orphanages purchase local children from economically disadvantaged families and subject them to malnutrition and unclean living conditions in their facilities for the purpose of attracting and profiting from charitable donations; some of these children are at further risk of sex trafficking and domestic servitude as a result of poor government oversight of adoption processes. Endemic corruption aids and abets trafficking crimes. Some police reportedly solicit commercial sex with children. Corrupt officials facilitate cross-border trafficking, thwart progress on investigations and prosecutions, and in some cases profit directly from establishments suspected of trafficking.

U.S. Department of State

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