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Labor Trafficking Problem Has ‘Exploded’ in Recent Years: USAID Official

Cambodian migrant workers get off from a Thai truck upon their arrival from Thailand at Cambodia-Thai international border gate in Poipet, Cambodia, Tuesday, June 17, 2014.
Cambodian migrant workers get off from a Thai truck upon their arrival from Thailand at Cambodia-Thai international border gate in Poipet, Cambodia, Tuesday, June 17, 2014.

Sean Callahan, deputy director for the USAID mission in Cambodia, recently sat with VOA Khmer to discuss the factors that can push workers abroad and ways they might be exploited.

]Editor’s note: Each day, hundreds of Cambodian laborers leave the country seeking work abroad. Those who do so put themselves at risk of human trafficking. With more than one million Cambodians working abroad, that means a lot of risk. Sean Callahan, deputy director for the USAID mission in Cambodia, recently sat with VOA Khmer to discuss the factors that can push workers abroad and ways they might be exploited.]

What is the current state of human trafficking in Cambodia?

“I think human trafficking in any country is a serous issue, regardless of the reason or who is involved. In Cambodia, trafficking has been a serous issue for a long time, but there is also a lot of progress in the fight against trafficking. The focus has been mostly on sex trafficking, trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. That’s still going on, but there have been plenty of studies, as well as the statement by the government, that that has decreased, especially in children being exploited in the sex entertainment industry. But most of the traffic that really is going on and exploded over the last few years have been in labor trafficking.”

What form does this trafficking take?

There have been a few [factors] out there. International Justice Mission has a very good study and report on that. I think it’s partly legislation that has reduced the amount of sex trafficking, as well as concentrated, comprehensive efforts by the government of Cambodia to fight sex trafficking. And I think that is on going and that would be something that will have to continue, that we focus on. In terms of labor trafficking, there are a lot of factors that play there.

We call those push and pull factors. The push factor really is poverty. The pull factors are the attraction of jobs in Thailand, in Malaysia, whether it’s the fishing industry, construction industry, working as domestic workers, so those are the pull factors that makes it more attractive for an impoverished Cambodian to leave their homes and families to seek better economic opportunity abroad.

What are the pull factors that make jobless people leave their country and take the risk?

There is a lot there. Part of it is the lack of economic opportunities in their villages, in their homes. Perhaps not having a solid education. There is also exploitation trafficking. People don’t know that they are getting into, so they go to take the jobs, and they are tricked, or they are manipulated or expiated, which is why we call them trafficked. If you are going to work on a fishing boat or working on a construction and you are not paid. You have to pay recruitment agent to get you the job. Your wage is withheld, your passport was taken from you. You are beaten or something like that. This is trafficking.

What are the risks that people who are trapped faced?

First and foremost, the risk that they are facing is that they are trapped. It’s a modern form of slavery, that they are not able to get the wages for a fair days’ work. They are working long hours, trapped on fishing boats or trapped in a home, so there are a lot of risks there. Also when they are able to escape this and they make it back home, a lot of them come back with no money. They work for years without any wages being paid. There is no compensation, and also obviously there is probably a lot of mental damage, a lot of physical damage as well to themselves, so it is a tough situation for these people.

Do you see that local or international human trafficking is happening more?

Cambodia is a source for transit and actually a destination country for human trafficking, so there is trafficking domestically from the rural to the urban areas, where people are trying to get jobs, and they end up being exploited or trafficked, and children as well, but also overseas. So it’s domestic bilateral as well as regional. If we look at a lot of Cambodian citizens who are trafficked in the fishing industry, that is a regional issue that encompasses more than Cambodia.

Between local and regional trafficking, which one is more serious?

I don’t have the statistics to tell you what would be more serious. I think out of the work age population in Cambodia, there is a significant percentage of those Cambodians who are oversea, and so you would think that a lot of Cambodians are working overseas. And I don’t know how many of them would be considered as being trafficked, but I think it’s a large amount. I don’t know how many would consider here in Cambodia itself. But given that large number of Cambodians who are overseas and undocumented, not migrated legally but informally relegated, there are probably a lot more Cambodians trafficked regionally than perhaps domestically.

What are the most likely destinations?

I think that would probably Thailand right now, where there are a lot of economic migrants. They go across the border a day or two to find work, to trade, to go back. Those were not considered trafficked victims, but migrant who go over there, and they are duped or they end up in a serious situation.

The million in Thailand, I think, that is a significant amount. The population of Cambodia is 15 million. I think the working population may be 9 million, so that is a significant amount of people. I think Thailand is the No. 1 destination for labor migrants. And the other one probably is the fishing industry, which I don’t know how you would identify the location, but there are victims of trafficking from Cambodia as far away as Saudi Arabia, Africa, and fishing vessels in Malaysia and other destinations, as well. And there could be other places like China. Let’s not forget that many Cambodian women are trafficked in the form of brides for sale into China.”

In order to mitigate the situation, what do you think the government should do?

I think the government is doing a lot right now. The national committee for countering trafficking is really focusing on three areas: prevention, prosecution and protection.

Trying to promote through the government to the people as well as themselves as the safe legal means of seeking work overseas, so that you know you are documented. You go through the proper channels, that you register. The government knows where you are going. You know where you are going. The recipient country knows their licenses are registered a good way. Also if the prevention is really telling people of the danger of this and try to find other avenues.

There is also prosecution where the government is really prosecuting traffickers, and how they’re doing it is really difficult, given the scale and the fact that a lot of this takes place oversea. I think there is more to be done. It would be great if there was an explicit undercover investigative authorities that were allowed, for the police to go undercover, to really investigate the trafficking rings, to increase the number of prosecution.

Besides that what can NGOs and USAID do to help mitigate the situation?

I think that there are a lot of NGOs out there trying to help, whether it’s providing psycho-social counseling, helping them rebuild their lives, giving them new jobs, new careers, as well as simply being there for them. I think that NGOs could work closely with the government to find out where people are coming from or where they’re going. I think it’s also important that there are more provincial roles, which the national community is trying to do with the provincial community, getting funding to them, so that they are more working directly with the sources of trafficked victims, and so it’s easy for the police who are in that district, in that village, who know the people who are the vulnerable population.

Cambodia has been very fortunate for several years to have allocated funding for trafficking, because we consider it a serious issue here, and we’ve been working with a number of groups over the years. We’ve just been embarking on a new four-year program with Winrock International and the real focus there is looking at: Why are people going to these kinds of jobs, where there are risks of trafficking, and also really trying to focus on the provincial communities that know more about the problems, but also could work to help vulnerable population, have the skills to find jobs in their own village in their own home, at least in Cambodia, so they are not vulnerable to being trafficked.

Do you think that ASEAN economic integration will put more people at risk, in terms of human trafficking?

I think what it means is that Cambodia needs to recognize that its citizen have to be better prepared, better educated and have the proper training for jobs. There is certainly going to be a pool of individuals that look for better jobs elsewhere, whether it’s the construction industry or the fishing industry, which they’re going to pay more in Thailand than in Cambodia, so there will be a continued flow of individuals looking for jobs elsewhere.

What is your advice to the Cambodian government?

I think it is not to stop people. You know economic migration is happening around the world. And that is what allows the economy to flourish, that people are able to get the job. And I think a lot of people are economic migrants. They leave their village to Phnom Penh for studying or for a job. Those are migrants that contribute to economic growth. A lot of funding does come back in this country, more so than probably we know, so I think economic migrants overseas bring a lot of money back to Cambodia.

They should be able to migrate as long as the law allows them to go one place to another. They should hold the proper paperwork. They should be able to access passports or other legal documents, so that they can actually immigrate legally and safely, rather than going somewhere else illegally, where there are dangers of paying off traffickers and smugglers or their safety is at risk.

It’s a domestic issue, but a regional issue too, and the Cambodian government recognizes that. We recognize that other development partners recognize that and are looking at regional integration, but also looking at again the push factor, the factor of poverty. The government and many development partners realize that they need to improve the skills and training of the vulnerable population, so that they are not susceptible to trafficking.