By David Ariosto, CNN
Cambodia, long suspected of being fertile ground for human traffickers, has drawn recent attention after reports of sexual abuse and widespread mistreatment prompted government actions to improve the plight of its young women and girls.
Considered a modern-day form of slavery, human trafficking involves the illegal trade of people and commonly includes sexual exploitation and forced labor.
In Cambodia, CNN uncovered stories of suspected abuse; ranging from girls as young as 4 years old being sold for sex – an industry thought to be bolstered by foreign tourists – to young women trapped in debt-bondage, having being lured to neighboring Malaysia for work.
In an effort to unravel a phenomenon that human rights groups say still plagues southeast Asia and the broader region, the CNN Freedom Project highlighted Cambodia because of both its reputation and a recent pledge to better the situation.
But whether recent reforms have since worked to stem the alleged abuses remains a subject of debate.
Domestic labor in Malaysia
Drawn by the prospect of a better life and the promise of more money, many young Cambodian maids working in Malaysia said they were recruited to go there by labor agencies, now only to find themselves unable to leave.
The women – often subject to poor treatment in prison-like facilities – forfeit their passports and are commonly left in a situation tantamount to indentured servitude, said Manfred Hornung, a legal adviser for the Cambodian Rights Group, Licadho.
On October 15, however, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a measure into law banning the practice of sending domestic workers to Malaysia, perhaps in response to mounting criticism.
The ban was enacted just days after a report by CNN’s Dan Rivers examined a recruitment agency in the Cambodian capital.
The story “that aired on CNN has actually awakened the country up the whole country on this human trafficking issue again,” said Cambodian parliament member Mu Sochua. “I have to say that his piece is just one little part of the whole problem, which is much worse.”
She said the report prompted her to further petition the country’s leadership to take action.
But only weeks later, Sochua told CNN that labor recruitment agencies in her country were still sending domestic workers to Malaysia, adding that many government officials either own or have close ties to the companies.
The country’s ministries of labor and interior “are not taking any action,” she said, noting that “many officials and familial members of some ministers actually own these dubious agencies.”
Sochua did not identify the officials, ministers or companies to which she was referring and CNN cannot independently confirm her claim.
But a government spokesman called the practice of sending labor abroad “a learning process.”
“We are finding out why it has happened and why it is happening,” said Phay Siphan, a spokesperson for the country’s Council of Ministers.
Recruitment agencies, meanwhile, forge identification papers in an effort to recruit children, charge “excessive recruitment fees” and mislead workers about potential opportunities, according to recent a Human Rights Watch report.
Up to 50,000 Cambodian women have migrated to Malaysia since 2008, the report said.
And yet just three days after the domestic worker ban was signed into law, 25 Cambodian maids – wearing shirts emblazoned with name of a recruiting agency – checked in for an Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to Licadho.
CNN cannot independently confirm that account.
“It is a heartbreaking story,” said Sochua. “I constantly meet with many parents who come to tell me that they don’t know where their girls are, they simply disappeared and lost contacts with families after girls left to Malaysia.”
Often accused of being both a source of and destination for human sex trafficking, CNN explored allegations of abuse affecting young girls in Cambodia – notably in a village outside the capital of Phnom Penh.
The village, Svay Pak, appears to have a disturbing reputation as a place where little girls are openly sold for sex to foreign tourists.
One of the girls – who CNN is not naming to protect the identity of the victim – says she was forced to work in a brothel before she could read.
“I was about 5 or 6 years old,” the girl said. “The first man said to me, ‘I want to have sex with you.’ At the time I didn’t know what to do. No one could help me.”
Dozens of girls in her neighborhood told CNN that they’ve had similar experiences.
Sex workers elsewhere in the country are also subject to other forms of sexual violence, according to Human Rights Watch.
Last year, the group released a report that detailed widespread allegations of 90 female and transgender sex workers that said police “had beaten them with their fists, sticks, and electronic shock batons.”
“Several said officers raped them while they were in police detention,” the report said. “Every single sex worker we spoke with said the police demanded bribes or stole money from them. Some officers demanded sex.”
Two years earlier, the country had passed a law meant to protect sex workers. But rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, say there is “little evidence that this has happened, or that prosecutions for trafficking have been pursued.
Government officials decline to comment on those allegations.
As the CNN Freedom Project continues to examine the effects and root causes of human trafficking, the following timeline reflects key aspects of coverage and events around the region.
October 3-5, 2011: CNN airs a three-part series that examines a recruiting agency, with alleged ties to the Cambodian government, suspected of trafficking maids to Malaysia. Just before the series airs, the young woman featured in the story begins receiving compensation, she says, but is still unable to leave the factory – her passport confiscated – until her “debt” is paid off. Read more of the report by CNN correspondent Dan Rivers
October 15, 2011: Cambodia’s prime minister signs an order suspending the recruitment, training and sending of Cambodian domestic workers to Malaysia. Weeks later an opposition lawmaker says labor recruitment agencies are still sending domestic workers to Malaysia, adding that many government officials either own or have close ties to the companies. CNN cannot independently confirm that account and government officials say stopping the practice is “a learning process.”
October 17, 2011: Malaysian Foreign Minister pledges to apologize to Cambodia if allegations of abuse of Cambodian workers in Malaysia are proved to be true.
October 22-23, 2011: CNN airs a two-part documentary called “Not My Life” that focuses on Cambodian brothels, specifically an area not far from the capital, where young girls are prostituted to visiting tourists.
October 24, 2011: CNN correspondent Sara Sidner reports from Cambodiagoogle. as a follow-up to what was revealed in “Not My Life.” She files a story that focuses on a young woman who talks about how she endured repeated rapes from the time she was 5e years old. Shortly after the story airs, Cambodian authorities contact Don Brewster who runs the aid group featured in “Not My Life” to say they would act and make arrests. Brewster says he’s been “yelling from the roof tops” for the past two years and it’s not until CNN airs the story that suddenly there is action.
October 28, 2011: An article in the Cambodia Daily – an English-language daily newspaper – highlights government ties to recruiting agencies, including the one featured in Rivers’ report.
October 31, 2011: Human Rights Watch publishes a report based on interviews with migrant domestic workers, government officials, non-governmental organizations, and recruitment agencies that highlight alleged abuses of women and girls in Cambodia and Malaysia, including allegations of forced confinement, heavy debt burdens and rape.
November 6, 2011: Journalist Nick Kristof accompanies a police raid at a brothel in Cambodia and posts message on the social networking site Twitter about how the army showed up and ordered police to cancel the raid as it was taking place. CNN cannot independently confirm that account, and the government has declined to comment.