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

Cambodia's Children

Phnom Penh's Progress on Child Exploitation

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.

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 arrested and jailed for immigration violations; others were taken from the police station and returned to brothels by police themselves.

The nation also has the world’s strongest private aftercare system for girl survivors, which includes a state-of-the-art assessment center, trauma-focused care, shelter, education, and job training. In those years, even if there had been political will, the police wouldn’t have been able to investigate trafficking crimes. Officers lacked computers, cameras, electronic surveillance equipment, and vehicles. (Observers at the time commented that traffickers were better outfitted than the police.) Police had little capacity to conduct interviews that didn’t re-traumatize victims. Nor were they able to collect basic evidence that would hold up in court or collaborate with social workers and prosecutors to move cases forward.

Things began to change in 2003, when a new U.S. ambassador to Cambodia was confirmed. Ambassador Charles Ray raised the issue in a diplomatic demarche with Sar Kheng, the interior minister and deputy prime minister. Ray, invoking new U.S. anti-trafficking legislation (the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000), warned Phnom Penh that it risked losing U.S. foreign assistance if it did not confront the out-of-control epidemic of sexual exploitation of young children. As a poor nation highly dependent on foreign aid from the United States, the United Nations, and other donors, Cambodia understood that the threat was tangible. The authorities responded by collaborating with IJM in a large operation that rescued dozens of minor girls, of whom nine were under ten years of age. The operation resulted in multiple criminal convictions.

A victim of sexual abuse (in white and orange top) walks in to attend an appeal hearing at a court in Phnom Penh, August 18, 2010.

A victim of sexual abuse (in white and orange top) walks in to attend an appeal hearing at a court in Phnom Penh, August 18, 2010.

That was the beginning of a decadelong collaboration between IJM and the government of Cambodia. In 2003, IJM received a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to train the Cambodian National Police’s Anti-Trafficking & Juvenile Protection police. IJM’s law enforcement experts eventually trained hundreds of members of the unit and collaborated with it to rescue over 500 victims from commercial sexual exploitation. Increased professionalism in evidence collection and perpetrator apprehension led to over 100 arrests and convictions of traffickers, pimps, brothel owners, and customers.

The Cambodian government also began partnering with dozens of other civil society agencies, coalitions, and experts to improve laws and policies, train judicial and social service officials, expand the private victim care system, and conduct prevention and education efforts across the nation. Cambodia’s population is now more educated about the problem and is involved in prevention and reporting. The nation also has the world’s strongest private aftercare system for girl survivors, which includes a state-of-the-art assessment center, trauma-focused care, shelter, education, and job training.

By 2012, in a study of minors in the commercial sex industry in three of Cambodia’s major cities—formerly areas with the highest availability of children for sexual exploitation and where the largest number of entertainment establishments are now located—IJM found that young minors represented less than one percent of those in prostitution. Older minors represented 7.41 percent of the total. In a 2015 study, young children represented just 0.1 percent of those in the sex industry and older minors were only 2.12 percent. Entertainment business owners have been moving toward primarily 18-and-up businesses because they know the law and they are seeing police enforce it.

The fight to end child trafficking in Cambodia isn’t over. There are still girls who must be rescued, and those who exploit them must still be brought to justice. To be sure, there have been setbacks along the way. Certain Cambodian military and local police officials have protected brothels in which minors are believed to be available. In 2011, Eam Rattana, a colonel, was indicted, tried, and convicted in absentia on corruption charges relating to a protection racket in the sex industry. But Rattana was never detained, and three years later his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.

The rankings in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report for Cambodia over the past dozen years, including the one released at the end of July this year, reflects the on-again, off-again progress. Cambodia received a failing Tier 3 designation in 2002 and 2005 and was placed on the Tier 2 Watch List five times. (Tier 2 Watch is a designation that is not as poor as Tier 3 but suggests that the country has not met Tier 2 standards, which would require making progress toward meeting minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.)

The TIP Report Tier rankings have been reported widely in Phnom Penh, and the problems the report identified were taken seriously by the Ministry of the Interior, which manages the police. U.S. pressure to do better, combined with foreign assistance for professionalization within the anti-trafficking police and courts, were extremely helpful to reformers within the Cambodian government. Over the past two years, the Cambodian government has grown even more committed to enacting their National Committee for Counter Trafficking’s National Plan of Action, improve law enforcement capacity and collaboration, and expand improvements to more remote provinces.

A drawing done by a sexual abuse victim is seen next to a stuffed toy, at the appeal court in Phnom Penh, August 18, 2010.

A drawing done by a sexual abuse victim is seen next to a stuffed toy, at the appeal court in Phnom Penh, August 18, 2010. 

But the fight to end child trafficking in Cambodia isn’t over. There are still girls who must be rescued, and those who exploit them must still be brought to justice. There is very little aftercare for boy victims of sex trafficking, and the pace of progress on labor trafficking lags far behind the gains in commercial sexual exploitation of children. The Cambodian government and Cambodia’s vibrant NGO community must remain on high alert for backsliding. The anti-trafficking police unit still needs legal authority and guidelines to conduct undercover operations and audio-video evidence collection, which it currently does not possess. The government must ensure that progress in major cities is being reinforced in the more remote provinces.

This year’s Trafficking in Persons Report, released on July 27, kept Cambodia on the Tier2 Watch list, which is an indignity that the Cambodian government little deserves considering the unprecedented progress it has made in reducing the sex trafficking of children and the prevalence of minors in the sex industry. “What message does this send to those in the Cambodian police, social services, and public justice officials, who have worked so hard to achieve this progress?” asked Sharon Cohn Wu, the senior vice president of IJM. “That no matter what the gains, the U.S. government won’t acknowledge them.”

Cambodia’s unexpected success in dramatically reducing the supply of and demand for trafficked children through a professional law enforcement strategy and in collaboration with citizens and civil society is a model that can and should be supported, studied, and replicated. The State Department’s 2015 report obscured this achievement, but the gains are nonetheless quite real and reflect the courage of the Cambodian leaders who want something better for their nation’s children. 

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