Cambodia's Children

Phnom Penh's Progress on Child Exploitation

A Cambodian child eats noodles while sitting in a window at the Preah Vihear temple, October 17, 2008.  Adrees Latif / Reuters

When International Justice Mission (IJM), an international human rights organization of which I am a vice president, first began investigating trafficking in Cambodia in 2002, the country was a magnet for foreign pedophiles. Thousands of children as young as five were openly sold for sex to foreign pedophiles who had nothing to fear from corrupt and complicit police and courts. Today, young children are extremely difficult to find in the sex industry, and the number of older minors (ages 16–17) in the sex industry has plummeted to much lower levels. Although there is still much work to be done, what was once ground zero for sex trafficking is now a model of how justice systems can improve, children can be rescued and restored to their former lives, perpetrators apprehended and punished, and effective deterrence established and sustained.

Cambodian prostitutes try to entice some customers into their brothel at one of the red light districts of Phnom Penh, July 27, 1994.
Cambodian prostitutes try to entice some customers into their brothel at one of the red light districts of Phnom Penh, July 27, 1994. Reuters
Cambodia is a fascinating case study in the anti-slavery field. It is impoverished and run by an autocratic regime with a poor human rights record that nonetheless tackled a once ubiquitous crime in which its own officials were complicit. When IJM began its Cambodian anti-trafficking work in 2002, there was a near complete lack of political will in Phnom Penh to confront child sexual exploitation. Sound quantitative data is not available from the early 2000s, but various studies estimated that children represented 15 to 30 percent of those exploited in the commercial sex industry. For its part, the Cambodian government released estimates citing that minor girls could make up as much as 30 percent of commercial sex workers in the city of Phnom Penh. In December 2001, surveyors hired by the anti-trafficking group AIDéTouS recorded that, in just one month, over 4,000 men entered Svay Pak, a notorious and isolated neighborhood where very young children could be purchased for sex.

The degree of Cambodian police complicity in child sex trafficking can be seen in a 2002 incident in which members of the police anti-trafficking unit “rescued” a number of minor Vietnamese girls from Phnom Penh sex establishments. Some of the victims were

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