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FOCUS December 2005 Volume 42

Human Rights of Children in Cambodia:Focus on Trafficking

Machiko Kaida*

* Machiko Kaida, Joint Representative, International Center for the Rights of the Child (Tokyo, Japan)
"Sold like chickens" - description of a human trafficking experience by a Cambodian girl-victim.

Cambodia is a source, transit and destination country for the trafficking of Cambodian and Vietnamese children. Cambodian children from the rural areas are being sold in tourist towns and Phnom Penh in high number. With 35% of the Cambodian population living below the poverty line (US$ 0.5 a day),[1] the prevailing poverty in the rural areas and the ensuing widening gap between rich and poor in urban areas cause the problem. A larger factor is likely the high "price" paid for virginity by Chinese, Korean and Japanese customers and the huge profits criminal organizations earn through trafficking.

The increase in sex-tourists brought on by the rapid development in the tourism industry (1,055,202 foreign tourists in 2004)[2] also plays a large role. Europeans and Americans tend to buy children on the streets while Asians buy them in brothels. European and American buyers befriend the children, give them and their parents gifts, and when trust has been gained sexually exploit them. The parents, therefore, find it harder to press charges later on even when they get to know what had happened. Many of the victims of this kind of trafficking are male street children, 15 years old or younger. Those who have become addicted to drugs agree to have sex with adults out of the need for money.[3]

The number of women and girls trafficked from Cambodia to Thailand for sexual purposes grew rapidly around 10 years ago. During the last 3 years, trafficking of women and girls to Malaysia has been increasing. According to the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC), 36 women and girls have been deported from Malaysia during the 2003 to 2005 period.[4] Aside from being victims of trafficking, they faced the problem of detention in Malaysian prisons or immigration centers for illegal entry.

NGOs working in Cambodia

There are many NGOs in Cambodia apart from CWCC working on this issue. ECPAT Cambodia has 32 member- organizations, while the Coalition to Address Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia (COSECAM) network has 23 member-organizations.

ECPAT Cambodia became more active during the last 2 years and has organized a workshop to review the Cambodian government's first 5-Year National Plan of Action (2000-2004) on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) with COSECAM. They also produced several materials including posters showing that child prostitution and pornography are crimes. It has been working with the Ministry of Tourism and others in 2005 on a campaign to protect children from sex tourism.

COSECAM was established in November 2001 and has a Steering Committee (composed of member- NGOs) that works on (1) advocacy, (2) research, (3) organizational and human resource development and (4) rescue and social rehabilitation of victims.

Two more NGOs engaged in CSEC prevention activities are worth mentioning. One is the Healthcare Center for Children (HCC), which is vigorously implementing awareness-raising and income generating activities in rural areas.[5] HCC organizes workshops to raise awareness among key persons in the community in areas with high incidence of human trafficking (mainly in Prey Veng Province) and then create a community-based prevention network. As a result, not only has there been a decrease in the number of cases of people being deceived by traffickers but also fewer people blindly migrating to urban areas seeking work, and fewer traffickers come to the villages. Since 2005, with the support of the International Center for the Rights of the Child, HCC has also been working on formation of school- based trafficking prevention networks adding to community-based networks. In 14 primary and secondary schools in Prey Veng Province, Komchay Mea District, a 10-member group disseminates information from friend to friend on the dangers of trafficking and the rights of children. It also established a savings group, which provides cattle and pigs as loans to girls from high-risk families, such as one-parent families or those who are extremely poor.

Another NGO, Friends/Mith Samlanh, protects street children from sex tourists. Specifically, it informs the children that they should refuse offers from sex tourists to engage in sexual acts to avoid facing numerous problems such as contracting sexually transmitted diseases or being shunned by their families. It also raises awareness of drivers of motorbike taxis, so that they will not give rides to tourists who sexually exploit children.[6]

Government initiatives and their problems

The biggest problem pointed out in the context of sexual exploitation and trafficking of children in Cambodia is the corruption in the government and the judiciary. The number of cases of the police, prosecutors and judges receiving bribes from the perpetrators of sexual exploitation is extremely high. This has resulted in the release and failure to convict suspected sexual exploiters and traffickers. High-ranking government officials or members of their family who are linked to traffickers are rarely punished. This is one of the reasons why Cambodia was classified in the Tier 3 in the U.S. Department of State "Trafficking in Persons Report," which means that the country was regarded as "not making significant efforts" to curb trafficking. In particular, the government's lack of proper investigation into the raid in December 2004 on a shelter operated by a non-governmental organization, Acting For Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP), in which all the women and girls taking shelter were taken away,[7] played a role in the low grading. While the manager of the hotel in question was arrested in September 2005, some point out the involvement of high government officials in the case.

The Cambodian government, however, is not completely lacking in efforts to stop CSEC. It has set up an Anti-Human-Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Unit. The number of people arrested for sexual crimes against children and human trafficking has increased from 342 during the period of January 1996 to December 1999 to 1,021 during the period of January 2001 to October 2005. There were 149 cases of sexual exploitation (10.4%), 193 cases of trafficking (13.5%), and 1,021 cases of rape and sexual abuse (71.6%). But only 60% of the 2,367 cases reported to the Anti-Human-Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Unit[8] resulted in arrests. The number of those handed guilty verdicts is likely to be even smaller.

Child empowerment

Child empowerment in the context of child trafficking includes empowering victims as well as children involved in prevention activities. A workshop organized by COSECAM in 2003 is an example of victims' empowerment. 17 girl-victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation who were staying at a shelter participated in the workshop and spoke about their experiences. There are currently more than 20 shelters in Cambodia for children who are victims of sexual exploitation. It is generally understood that the victims should not be asked about their past or their views on the issue. This is considered an infringement on the mental wounds of the victims. The girls are also considered not in a position to respond due to inadequate education. Cambodian NGO workers, however, learned the importance of child participation at the Second World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children held in Yokohama in 2001. They thought that they should integrate the views of the child-victims in the problem-solving process, and thus began a program of listening to the victimized girls.

As a result, it became apparent that the girls were eager to speak about their experiences and that they become empowered by talking to people and having their views heard.[9] The description of trafficking experiences as similar to being "sold like chickens and ducks" was made by one of the girls participating in the workshop.

Empowerment among the children involved in prevention activities is also witnessed. Children who received training on prevention of human trafficking in Prey Veng Province mentioned earlier, became confident after acquiring knowledge on how to solve this issue, and began actively working in the area. One of these children says that since they now know well the dangers of trafficking, even better than their parents, they can teach their parents as well as other students in their school.[10]

In the Mekong Children's Forum on Human Trafficking (Bangkok, October 2004),[11] children-victims of trafficking, children involved in child rights activities, and children from areas with high risk of trafficking came together to discuss how child trafficking could be eliminated and came up with recommendations to the government and other stakeholders.[12]

The efforts of the Cambodian NGOs to listen to the children themselves and work on the issue with them in preventing sexual exploitation and human trafficking as well as protecting the victims deserve our continued attention.


1. " World Bank: Local Poverty Down Sharply," The Cambodia Daily, 4 November 2005.

2. Notice of the Child Safe Tourism Commission, Ministry of Tourism, 7 December 2005.

3. Report of Ms. Beatrice Magnier, Director, Action Pour Les Enfants, at the Child Safe Tourism Conference held on 7 December 2005.

4. Report on the National Workshop on Trafficking of Women to Malaysia organized by CWCC on 18 August 2005.

5. See International Center for the Rights of the Child website and the Center's Cambodia blog

6. Ibid.

7. 83 women and girls were rescued from trafficking and sexual exploitation at the Chai Hour II Hotel and brought to the AFESIP shelter.

8. UNICEF Cambodia, Fact and Figures on Child Protection in Cambodia, 2005.

9. Sandy Hudd, "Sold like Chickens: Trafficked Cambodian Girls Speak Out," COSECAM, 2003. COSECAM also published a guidebook proposing minimum standards that the shelters protecting victimized girls should fulfill. Minimum Standards for Residential Child Care (Phnom Penh: COSECAM, 2003).

10. "First Hand Knowledge: Voices across the Mekong," ILO, 2005.

11. The forum came out with the Mekong Children's Agenda for Action on Human Tr a fficking, see for more information.

12. See Komu - Kome No. 49 (15 December 2004), newsletter of the International Center for the Rights of the Child for details on the recommendations.