Cambodia on Thursday lashed out at the U.S. State Department for downgrading the country’s ranking in its annual report on human trafficking, saying cultural barriers were hampering government efforts to combat the problem.
The State Department in its 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report downgraded Cambodia a notch to the Tier 2 Watch List—the scale’s second-lowest rank—from Tier 2 for failing to “demonstrate evidence of overall increasing efforts to address human trafficking over the previous year.”
Cambodia’s Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan on Thursday said that the U.S. had failed to recognize Cambodia’s efforts to resolve its human trafficking issues.
“The report is just a show—they don’t know how much hard work we have done which has already led to great results,” he said.
The State Department refers to Cambodia as a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.
“Cambodia is moving in a downward direction,” U.S. ambassador-at-large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis CdeBaca told RFA on Wednesday, adding that “efforts there are falling off on the part of the Cambodian government.”
He pointed to the government’s “mixed record on victim protection,” saying that despite nearly 1,000 victims identified, “almost all victim care is done by nongovernmental organizations.”
“We think that what is necessary in Cambodia is for the Cambodian government to take victim care on its own,” he said.
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.
‘Culture’ to blame
But Phay Siphan blamed Cambodia’s culture for the lack in prosecution against human trafficking, saying it is considered taboo in the country to speak out against perpetrators.
“The government stance is that we are working [to combat trafficking]—this is our principle. We have laws, measures and judicial officers to work against human trafficking. However, we need to train human resources to deal with Cambodian culture,” he said.
“In our culture, the victims are not brave enough to speak out or file complaints, or they try to resolve the issue outside of the court system. This is a culture that we are trying to work on.”
Phay Siphan said that Cambodia’s government does not “ignore” trafficking or “allow it to exist,” because the practice also goes against the country’s cultural traditions.
He admitted that “a few bad people” in Cambodia are involved in child prostitution, but maintained that “Cambodian men don’t have sex with minors.”
“Most Cambodian men are dignified—we never have sex with minors. Only foreigners do that. Most people looking for child prostitution are from Western countries,” he said.
According to CdeBaca, in addition to the traditional problems of child prostitution and sex tourism in Cambodia, “there is also an increasingly recognized situation of Cambodians being held in forced labor” in neighboring countries who leave seeking work and become trapped by recruiters and traffickers.
On Thursday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it had coordinated with the Malaysian government and Switzerland-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) to repatriate six Cambodian nationals who had been trafficked for work on a Thai fishing vessel.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung said the six men were amongst 16 victims rescued by authorities in Malaysia after the Thai boat they were working on was confiscated in Malaysian waters.
The victims, who returned home earlier this week, are from Kompong Thom and Siem Reap provinces, Kuy Koung said, adding that IOM had assisted with funding to repatriate them and that the government would request additional funds from the NGO to bring the rest of the men back to Cambodia.
Kuy Koung said that Cambodians who seek jobs in foreign countries are increasingly falling victim to human trafficking rings.
Also on Thursday, RFA spoke with a man named Nget Chhek who said that he had traveled to Thailand seeking work through a legally operating company, only to have his passport confiscated by the company’s Thai manager.
He said that he was forced to work on a number of fishing boats, but had since been rescued and returned to his home in Kampot province.
Reported by Samean Yun and Ouk Saborey for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.