Thursday, July 25, 2002

Luke Hunt
Agence France-Presse

p. A8.

Cambodia wide open for trade in sex slaves

BAVET, CAMBODIA — In the dry season, the unpaved road from the Vietnamese border to the Cambodian capital is a dusty but swift three-hour drive, favoured by human smugglers.

Girls as young as 10 are taxied across Vietnam to a deserted paddock or stretch of forest that straddles the border. A brisk walk across the frontier to a second car follows, and the Vietnamese imports are whisked off to the assorted pimps, mama-sans and traffickers that await them in Phnom Penh and beyond.

Even when the rivers of the Mekong Delta rise between July and September and Route 1 becomes more difficult, smugglers simply opt for high-powered speed boats to ferry teenaged girls into a life of prostitution and slavery.

The land and river borders are porous and patrolled by only a handful of guards, who each earn about $20 (U.S.) a month.

Bypassing them is easy, says 24-year-old Long, a prostitute from Hanoi who plies her trade in a ramshackle Phnom Penh nightclub. But once in Cambodia, "if you don't have a passport, then you pay Cambodian customs $80 a head if you're caught."

Authorities believe Cambodia is not just a destination for prostitutes, but is also being used as a trafficking stop on the way to other Asian destinations, particularly Malaysia, where women can be moved on to places such as Hong Kong and Macau.

Vietnamese passport holders require visas to enter most Asian countries, whereas Cambodians do not. That makes Cambodian travel documents a prized asset.

In May, authorities arrested a Cambodian man and his two wives for trading virgin girls, acquired for about $75 each in Vietnam.

Police said the four girls, with six women, were smuggled from Vietnam and were to receive forged Cambodian passports while being held in a Phnom Penh brothel. They were then to be sold to brothels in Malaysia.

Cambodia acknowledges its enormous problem with human smugglers. But as one of the world's poorest countries, it lacks the resources to bring the scourge under control.

In Vietnam, human smugglers face jail terms of up to 20 years, a stark contrast to Cambodia's legal system. The need for reform was highlighted in mid-June when 14 Vietnamese prostitutes, ranging in age from 12 to 18, were jailed in Phnom Penh as illegal immigrants.

Government authorities and a non-government organization called Afesip rescued the 14 from brothels into which they had been sold, but a Phnom Penh municipal court then issued a warrant for the girls' arrests because they did not have proper travel documents.

Sara Colm, a senior researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the arrests violated every principle regarding the treatment of trafficking victims. The girls should have been protected, not punished.

"The police are protecting the pimp and the trafficker. They never arrest the pimps or the traffickers. Then we pressure authorities into acting and they arrest the victims," Afesip adviser Pierre Legros said.

In another case Mr. Legros's organization took on, a 15-year-old Vietnamese girl was sold into prostitution in Cambodia, then passed on to Hong Kong and Macau, where she saved money from prostitution and returned to Cambodia to pursue her case in the courts.

When the alleged trafficker was acquitted, the girl fled back to Vietnam, but it got more complicated yet, Mr. Legros said. "Her father never registered her at birth, so she is stateless and the Vietnamese government doesn't recognize her." Such girls are easier prey for smugglers.

Cambodia is being added to a blacklist of countries, compiled by the U.S. State Department, for not doing enough to combat slavery.

This could result in U.S. financial sanctions beginning next year unless Cambodia shows better results.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed recently to "recognize the truth" about trafficking, and Women's Affairs Minister Mu Sokhour promised that the government will work to improve the situation.

"We more than admit that there is trafficking, particularly in young women coming from Vietnam; you can see them in the brothels."

Ms. Sokhour said Cambodia must act by moving to arrest the middlemen.

"I believe that there are bad police officials involved with this trade. Brothel owners know how to buy the girls and escape from the law because they know the police."

Mr. Legros, however, was pessimistic about Phnom Penh's chances. He said the only way to end corruption is by raising Cambodians' living standards and improving access to health and education.

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Created: July 25, 2002
Last modified: September 9, 2002
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