Cambodia is back on another U.S. blacklist. Washington, in its 2022 Trafficking in Persons report, downgraded the Kingdom to Tier 3 status, the lowest of three designations, citing endemic corruption and an unwillingness to hold human traffickers accountable.
“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,” the report said.
Cambodia joined China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and 14 other nations on the bottom rung.
The U.S. in November sanctioned two military officials over corruption allegations at Ream Naval Base. In 2018, Washington blacklisted a commander in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, accusing him of human rights abuses.
The TIP downgrade arrived alongside a horrific 40-minute documentary by Al Jazeera showing foreign call-center workers held against their will and beaten for trying to escape.
Since 2020, media and NGO reports have painted a harrowing picture: Victims are lured by online ads promising high salaries and easy work. Once arriving, their passports are taken and they are forced into online scams, often involving cryptocurrency, romance or fake-extortion cons. Those who fail to perform are beaten or sold to other gangs.
The syndicates, run by Chinese organized crime, at first flourished in Sihanoukville. Their presence has since grown to Phnom Penh, Bavet, Poipet and other cities. They often work from buildings owned or linked to government officials and wealthy businessmen.
A study from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime released last year showed China’s BRI investment in Cambodia significantly raised the risk of illicit trade in Sihanoukville.
Central, a labor and human rights group, recorded 32 trafficking cases in 2022 involving hundreds of local and foreign workers.
The Chinese “slave” compounds garner the most attention. Yet each year thousands of Cambodians are trafficked internally to work in brick kilns and the entertainment industry, the report said.
According to the report, the Cambodian government has failed to proactively identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations and it did not provide adequate protection services for victims. Instead, it relied heavily on foreign donors and NGOs to provide much-needed support.
“Authorities did not investigate or hold criminally accountable any officials involved in the large majority of credible reports of complicity,” the report said. “In particular with unscrupulous business owners who subjected thousands of men, women, and children throughout the country to human trafficking in entertainment establishments, brick kilns, and online scam operations.”
Chou Bun Eng, vice chairperson of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, said the U.S. report did not tell the whole story.
“We are not happy with the report,” she said. “We are working hard to address the issue.”
She downplayed reports of foreign workers trapped in debt bondage, calling the issue a labor dispute.
“These cases related to foreigners in Cambodia are different,” she said. “We don’t regard this as human trafficking, but we are discussing it, to see if some cases are link to trafficking.”
She said foreign media wanted to make Cambodia look bad.
“I believe some issues could be true, but some were likely staged,” she said, in reference to videos showing workers being beaten.
Long Dimanche, deputy governor of Preah Sihanouk province, said Sihanoukville authorities had made great strides in recent months, yet those achievements were left out of the U.S. report.
He called the Al Jazeera story disinformation, done with the intent to tarnish Cambodia’s reputation.
“We don’t believe it and we do not accept it, this video of beatings in Sihanoukville,” he said. “We are working hard everyday to prevent and crack down on crime. If this really happened, we ask the victims to come and complain to the authorities.”
Am Sam Ath, operations director at Licadho, a local rights group, said Washington’s Tier-3 downgrade is a worrying sign that Cambodia’s human trafficking situation is detiorating.
“Human trafficking is a serious violation of human rights,” he said. “We are concerned that Cambodia will be listed as a black-market destination for trafficking. If we have a bad record on human rights, it could threaten our trade status with the E.U. and the U.S. and hurt our economy.”