Cambodia, Laos Slip in Anti-Trafficking Efforts

Reported by Richard Finney
cambodia-traffick-2011.gif Trafficked Cambodian fishermen arrive at the Phnom Penh International airport after being freed from slave-like conditions on Thai fishing vessels, Dec. 12, 2011.

Cambodia has suffered a severe drop in ranking in a U.S. annual report on human trafficking released Wednesday amid allegations of widespread corruption among enforcement officials and a decline in government efforts to help victims and prosecute traffickers.

The U.S. State Department, which prepared the report, also noticed a “weakening trend” in Laos in bringing traffickers to book and protecting victims.

“Cambodia is moving  in a downward direction,” U.S. ambassador-at-large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Luis CdeBaca told RFA, adding that the Southeast Asian country has been downgraded from Tier 2 to Tier 2 Watch List in this year’s report.

A further drop in rank would place Cambodia on Tier 3, a blacklist for countries deemed not to be in compliance with the minimum standards required to contain their trafficking problem.

Little was done by Cambodia’s government last year to help the country’s women, men, and children who were trafficked for sex or forced labor, CdeBaca said.

“While there were almost a thousand victims identified, almost all of the victim care was done by nongovernmental organizations, and often by nongovernmental organizations funded by foreign donors,” CdeBaca said.

It is necessary that the Cambodian government “start assuming some of that burden as well,” he said.

Fewer prosecutions

CdeBaca pointed also to a decline in the numbers of traffickers prosecuted during the reporting year.

According to this year’s TIP report, Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice reported 50 prosecutions resulting in 44 convictions, a decrease from the 102 prosecutions and 62 convictions reported in the previous year.

Corruption “at all levels” also blocked anti-trafficking efforts, the TIP report said.

“Local observers believe corruption to be the cause of impunity afforded to recruiting firms, including some with reported financial ties to senior government officials,” the TIP report said.

Along with Cambodia’s better-known problems of child prostitution and sex tourism, there is “an increasingly recognized situation of Cambodians being held in forced labor, many in other neighboring countries such as Malaysia [and] Thailand,” CdeBaca said.

“We’re hoping that we can work with our Cambodian counterparts so that they can address corruption and go after these recruiting companies,” he said.

'A weakening trend'

Cambodia’s neighbor Laos also saw a reduction in prosecutions, but retained its Tier 2 ranking, CdeBaca said.

“We’re concerned that there may be a weakening trend there, but not so much as to result in a different ranking in this year’s report,” he said.

Within the reporting year, Lao authorities investigated 75 cases of suspected trafficking, and court cases resulted in 18 convictions—“a significant decrease from the 37 obtained in the previous year,” according to the TIP report.

And though a long-awaited national plan of action on human trafficking was approved by Laos’ prime minister in November 2012, “its implementation has not begun,” the report said.

Laos has been limited by “what they have to spend their money on, and what they are able to do,” though, CdeBaca said.

“So there are activities going on in Laos. We’d like to see more.”

Signs of progress

Two other Southeast Asian countries—Myanmar and Vietnam—meanwhile made continued progress in their efforts against trafficking, CdeBaca said.

There has been a “good spirit of cooperation with our counterparts in Myanmar,” the formerly military-ruled country also known as Burma, he said, pointing for example to the work of Myanmar’s Central Body Against Trafficking in Persons (CB-TIP).

“This is a dedicated group of detectives and other police who are out there on the front lines of the fight against human trafficking,” he said.

“And we’ve been able to see not only public commitments from CB-TIP leadership, but now over 200 prosecutions and convictions of human trafficking cases.”

Though the country still holds a Tier 2 Watch List rank, “we certainly see improving forecasts for Myanmar,” CdeBaca said.

Help for victims

In Vietnam, a Tier 2 country, “we’ve seen almost 500 offenders who have been brought to justice,” CdeBaca said, adding, "The big weakness we'd like to see addressed, of course, is victim protection."

“Right now in Vietnam, if you’re a sex-trafficking victim, you’re pretty likely to get services. But if you’ve been held in forced labor, or if you’re a man as opposed to a female victim, then services are not really available to you.”

In March 2011, a new, comprehensive anti-trafficking law was adopted in Vietnam, and the country has been working ever since to “take a law that looks good on paper and make it work out in the field,” CdeBaca said.

“That’s something that we’ve certainly seen as a positive ... We want to make sure that every trafficking victim gets the programs that were set forth in that new law."

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