Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday for the first time publicly acknowledged that the nation has a human trafficking problem related to illicit gambling and other crimes, while downplaying the widely reported crimes, saying other countries have similar problems and just hundreds of foreigners were the “real victims.”
During a speech at the National Inter-Faith Forum Against Human Trafficking, the premier also warned that Cambodia was at risk of becoming a safe haven for traffickers—and being considered “the worst country in the world” if authorities do not act to prevent crimes.
“Our issue [of human trafficking], if compared to other countries in the world, it isn’t too late, but if we do not prevent this right now, [the country] will become a safe haven for criminals smuggling people into Cambodia or smuggling them out of Cambodia,” Hun Sen said. “So, we must rush to work together to take action against human trafficking.”
While human trafficking doesn’t just happen in Cambodia, but all regions, Hun Sen said that multiple actors needed to cooperate to fight against it.
“If there is no clear explanation [for trafficking crimes], our country might be considered as the worst country in the world,” he said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. downgraded Cambodia to Tier 3 status in its annual Trafficking in Persons ranking, the lowest of three designations, citing endemic corruption and an unwillingness to hold traffickers accountable.
Cambodia joined China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and 14 other countries on the bottom rung.
The premier’s statements come after months of official denials and downplaying of increasing reports from foreign embassies and news media of online scam compounds operated by organized crime groups that enslave people, mostly from China and around Southeast Asia, and force them to carry out scams estimated to have earned criminals billions of dollars by defrauding people around the world.
Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, told CamboJA last week that his office has been raising the fact that casinos around Southeast Asia have been “infiltrated” by organized crime groups engaging in money laundering for several years.
During the pandemic, Douglas said the gambling industry moved online, and some enterprises “pivoted and diversified into fraud and scam centres using the same workforce.”
On Thursday, Hun Sen said the pandemic saw growth in the use of digital technology, which offers benefits if used in the right way, but losses if used wrongly.
“This point demands that all relevant parties take action together. It is not just a human trafficking issue, but it has its branch to start, like starting from gambling and other offenses that has led up to a serious situation of human trafficking,” he said.
The prime minister said thousands of foreign nationals were lured to work in Cambodia, including people from Asean neighbors like Indonesia and Malaysia. While Cambodians often go to Malaysia for work, he said now Malaysians were coming to Cambodia. But, the premier said, “They were cheated [and told] that Cambodia has a higher wage.”
News reports have surfaced dozens of stories of foreign nationals being tricked into migrating to Cambodia after being promised high salaries, only to have their passports seized upon arrival and wages withheld while they’re forced to perpetrate online scams from inside sealed-off compounds.
“We had never realized thousands of foreigners were cheated here, but we have found that hundreds are the real victims,” Hun Sen said.
Sok Phal, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, told Chinese-language outlet the Cambodia-China Times last week that the government estimated about 70,000 to 100,000 people have come to work in illegal online gambling.
“They have to understand that if they come to work in this job, it breaks Cambodia’s laws. They can’t continue to do this business to support their daily living and family. They should find other things to do,” Phal said. “If all together we understand, our Preah Sihanouk and other provinces will be able to gradually address illegal gambling and people smuggling.”
Repeating earlier calls by Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Hun Sen said authorities “must be targeted” in relation to “rescuing victims quickly, investigating offenders and searching for masterminds for prosecution, and confiscating evidence in order to shut down illegal businesses, especially gambling and illegal online gambling.”
“I believe that a campaign to crackdown on illegal gambling will help to reduce human trafficking and strengthen village and commune safety,” he added.
At the same event on Thursday, Sar Kheng said since August 18, the government has received 368 complaints related to human trafficking, forced labor or confinement, including 149 cases occurring in Preah Sihanouk province.
“Cambodia has seen overwhelming online scams occurring,” he said.
Authorities have conducted searches at various locations, rescuing 361 people, including nine cases in which 54 people from six countries were trafficked. Police have arrested and charged 41 suspects, seized evidence and shut down sites for further investigation, the minister said.
This month, police raided a company’s Sihanoukville compound, arresting 27 foreigners and stating that illegal gambling, human trafficking and other crimes were perpetrated there. Days later, the gambling commission granted the same firm a casino license.
Kheng said criminals had used digital technology and victims as tools for defrauding others, forcing people to work, confining and exhorting them.
“Some perpetrators have weapons illegally,” he added. “If this action if not prevented, it will impact national security in the future.”