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US human trafficking report rebuffed

Cambodia was listed at Tier 2 from 2016-2018 and from 2019 to 2021 it was on the Tier 2 Watch List until it was downgraded to Tier 3 this year.

ANN | Cambodia |

A senior Cambodian official deplores the US Department of State’s report regarding the situation on human trafficking in Cambodia, which saw it slip from the Tier 2 status to Tier 3.

Chou Bun Eng, Ministry of Interior secretary of state and permanent vice-chair of the National Committee on Counter-Trafficking (NCCT), told The Post on July 20 that the contents of the Trafficking in Persons [TIP] Report for July 2022 were the opposite of what the Cambodian government had actually been doing to address the issue.

The US report, released on July 19, stated: “The government of Cambodia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so, even considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Cambodia was downgraded to Tier 3.”

Cambodia was listed at Tier 2 from 2016-2018 and from 2019 to 2021 it was on the Tier 2 Watch List until it was downgraded to Tier 3 this year.

“The 2022 TIP Report assesses Cambodia does not fully meet minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. We will nonetheless work with all stakeholders to prevent human trafficking & stand with Cambodians who support & seek justice for victims,” tweeted US ambassador to Cambodia W Patrick Murphy in response to the report’s conclusions and Cambodia’s status downgrade.

The report noted that Cambodia had taken some steps to address trafficking, including continuing to arrest, prosecute, and convict traffickers while also proactively screening for and identifying victims and assisting in the repatriation of Cambodian trafficking victims and those vulnerable to trafficking abroad, but it said there was still a lack of significant efforts in this area.

The report raises a number of issues to support the US State Department’s evaluation such as Cambodia’s failure to investigate or to hold criminally accountable any government officials allegedly involved in human trafficking after credible reports of their complicity had been made.

The report said that, in particular, there were business owners who subjected thousands of men, women and children throughout the country and even from abroad to human trafficking in entertainment establishments, brick kilns and online scam operations. The business owners, it alleged, were not being held accountable even after their operations were raided and the victims freed.

The report also accuses the government of not providing adequate protection services for victims, both local and from overseas, and of relying too heavily on foreign donors and NGOs to provide this much-needed care.

“The government did not maintain a centralised record or database of investigations and judicial proceedings; therefore, overall law enforcement data was incomplete, precluding the ability to compare investigations, prosecutions, and convictions from previous years,” the report said.

Citing media reports and without providing the dates for the period examined, the State Department said Cambodian authorities arrested 370 suspected traffickers, including 332 labour brokers, but the government did not report any updates on the status of these arrests such as trials, convictions or sentences for the offences.

The report also states that in 2021, the government prosecuted 109 suspected traffickers involved in 64 cases under the anti-trafficking law. Four of these cases involved sex trafficking, 37 concerned forced labour and 23 were unspecified forms of exploitation.

The government convicted 38 traffickers, including one for sex trafficking, 35 for forced labour and two more for unspecified offences.

It noted that Cambodian authorities had provided 256 training sessions and workshops on anti-trafficking laws, investigative techniques and evidence collection to 12,814 law enforcement officers. They also provided seven training sessions for 286 participants about victim identification and protection guidelines.

“Despite these training sessions, many police – particularly in rural areas – remained unaware of how to conduct anti-trafficking work, as most have not received any prior training on basic law enforcement techniques,” it claimed.

The report did praise the efforts of the NCCT for fighting human trafficking, but said the government did not report its anti-trafficking budget for 2021, while in 2020 it provided a budget of approximately 2.2 billion riel ($543,080).

The TIP report recommends that Cambodia increase funding to anti-trafficking law enforcement units, fully implement victim identification guidelines and allocate increased resources to anti-human trafficking police to better facilitate the monitoring of defendants released under judicial supervision pending trial.

“Increase or begin unannounced labour inspections in high-vulnerability professions – especially at brick kilns, entertainment venues, construction sites and plantations, with a focus on identifying debt bondage and holding business owners accountable to the law,” it said.

It also urged the Cambodian government to implement a system for monitoring, collecting and reporting data on anti-trafficking prosecutions and victim protection efforts.

However, the NCCT’s Bun Eng told The Post that the government had done their best given the available resources at combating human trafficking.

“How much do they know about the government’s work against human trafficking? We’ve tried very hard from the national to sub-national levels and we’ve worked hard at it together with our partner NGOs.

“I don’t think this report is well written or researched and we are not happy with it because we have gone all-out in our efforts, but the results of our efforts have been judged unfairly,” she said.

Bun Eng said the State Department had cherry-picked recent cases from 2022 to accentuate the shortcomings that Cambodia had along with a barrage of negative commentary to ensure a final judgment that placed Cambodia on Tier 3 and that generally, and as agreed upon, the report should only cover the period from January to December.

“If they look at the results of what we had done in that period of January to December, they will see how much work we’ve done, but in the end they turn around and issue a report like this, which doesn’t make us happy,” she said.

National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said human trafficking is largely the purview of the NCCT and questions about it should primarily be addressed to that institution.

But he noted that no matter how much Cambodia accomplishes, the evaluations they receive from some foreign governments or international bodies may not be as positive as they should be.

“If we talk about our efforts, our police have really tried their best. We’ve set up hotlines and communications teams and we’ve also received useful tips via social media from local and international sources to help free victims here. I have some figures, but I cannot reveal all these figures on my own initiative as we have another institution in charge of this,” he said, referring to the NCCT.

On the issue of child labour, particularly at brick kilns, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training has campaigned against it in the past and last week a new campaign was kicked off against child labour in the brick kiln business and in the agriculture industry in Siem Reap province’s Banteay Srey district.

The campaign is aimed at instructing inspectors and authorities on how to intervene by removing the children from dangerous and exploitative situations to prevent child labour as well as how to encourage their integration into a normal living situation afterwards.