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Numbers of Underage Sex Trafficked Victims Declining, Report Says

A Cambodian sex worker, center, holds a banner read " Closing Brothels" in a conference room for protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, file photo.
A Cambodian sex worker, center, holds a banner read " Closing Brothels" in a conference room for protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, file photo.

The number of minors working in Cambodia’s sex industry is on the decline, a new report finds.

A study by the International Justice Mission, which closely monitors the issue, shows a decline in the prevalence of girls under the age of 17 in brothels and other venues. The IJM report found the prevalence of underage girls declined from around 8 percent to just over 2 percent from 2012 to 2015.

Holly Burkhalter, IJM’s vice president of government and advocacy, told VOA Khmer that Cambodia is “no longer the world’s No. 1 destination to buy a child,” though the threat of sex trafficking remains high.

Commercial sex markets are still quite common, particularly in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the coastal province of Preah Sihanouk. But they’ve all seen a substantial decrease in the sexual exploitation of minors, the report says.

The number of minors trafficked for commercial sex remains high in Phnom Penh, particularly its notorious brothel district, Svay Pak. But the report shows a prevalence of minors there dropped 66 percent between 2012 and 2015.

But other advocates warn that just because the prevalence is decreasing does not mean exploitation has. Donald Brewster, founder of the Agape International Mission, which combats sex trafficking, wrote in the Washington Post last month, that it was too earlier to declare, “mission accomplished.”

“The big business of selling prepubescent girls to foreign pedophiles for thousands of dollars still exists, though it looks very different than it did a decade ago,” he wrote. “There are zero child brothels today in Svay Pak, where sexual predators were once waved in by children taught to solicit strangers. The days of brazen selling with a storefront are gone. The underground business, though, is thriving.”

Burkhalter told VOA Khmer she does not disagree. “We know there are issues and still cases,” she said. “But the real difference is that it’s not going on a normal course—as common as going down the street and buying an umbrella. That’s over.”

Eang Seng Eev, secretary-general of the non-profit Cambodia Anti-Child Trafficking, said it has become difficult to measure the scale of child sex trafficking in Cambodia.

“We don’t have a nationwide estimated number of victims that we agree on,” he said. But he thinks commercial sexual exploitation of children is still happening, especially in the entertainment sector.

Sek Sophal, program manager of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights, said the nature of child sex trafficking has changed in the face of Cambodia’s stronger law enforcement in human trafficking.

“Labor and sexual exploitation of children has become more hidden,” he said. “It’s difficult to identify whether they are actually trafficked for commercial sex.”

Burkhalter said these “underground sales” mean that criminals now cannot operate openly, which is important. Still, it remains unclear how many children once openly available is now secretly available.

The 2015 study notes strong collaboration between the Cambodian police, once passive in investigating the issue, and local and international organizations. Strong diplomacy from the US and other donors also helped the Cambodian government take action, Burkhalter said.

“They don’t want to be known as the place where little children can come and be bought, and we really find that to be the case with our partners and governments,” she said. “They were ashamed by that, and they want to put a stop to it, and they have largely done so.”

Cambodia remains on a list of countries not doing enough to stop human trafficking, according to the US State Department. If that continues, Cambodia could risk losing funding, Burkhalter said.