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Cross-Border Labor Migration Surges in Cambodia, Raising Risk of Human Trafficking

December 14, 2016

By Siv Hong Lim

On Monday, Cambodia celebrated a National Day Against Human Trafficking, drawing attention not only to the challenges the country faces, but also to the strides that it has made in combatting trafficking. Last year, Cambodia implemented the first national action plan against trafficking and in June, the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report upgraded Cambodia to Tier 2 status from its Tier 2 Watch List. While these are positive steps, a surge in cross-border migration is putting an increasing number of Cambodian overseas workers at risk of exploitation.

Cambodian migrant worker

Official estimates suggest there are over one million Cambodian men and women currently working overseas, with nearly all of them working in Thailand alone. Flickr user/ILO in Asia and the Pacific

Official estimates suggest there are over one million Cambodian men and women currently working overseas, the majority in Thailand. While Korea and Japan are increasingly becoming sought-after destinations for Cambodian migrants, they demand relatively higher qualifications, including language proficiency and a significant financial package necessary to support migration-related costs. Such demands are prohibitive to the large majority of migrants who are forced to look for alternative destinations like Thailand, where most migrants are undocumented, working in construction, manufacturing, fishing, and the agriculture and service sectors. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), only about 116,000 Cambodian migrants were recruited to work legally in Thailand over the period of 2006-2016, with the remainder going through illegal channels to obtain work. Many of these migrants become victims of exploitation and trafficking.

Thailand is not the only destination where cases of abuse, exploitation, and trafficking are happening. In 2011, Cambodia imposed a ban on sending domestic helpers to Malaysia in response to a rise in abuse cases. In December 2015, Cambodian and Malaysia signed a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to resume deployment of low-skilled workers to Malaysia, but as of now, no official recruitment has taken place under the new terms.

Women are also increasingly taking great risks to migrate to China, where many work through brokers who promise them job opportunities but instead force them into marriages with Chinese men against their will. Only 100 of the 7,000 Cambodian women that Chinese authorities say have married men in China did so legally, said Chou Bun Eng, secretary-general of the Interior Ministry’s committee to fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation. In late 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that 679 trafficked Cambodian migrant workers were repatriated from different countries including China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia.

Also in 2015, Cambodia’s newly established National Committee for Combating Trafficking in Persons (NCCT) began working with the Chinese government to develop an MoU on Anti-Trafficking in Persons between the two countries. An agreement, signed in October, while by no means comprehensive, serves as the first legal framework surrounding trafficking between the two countries.

The reasons that Cambodians migrate overseas for work are many, but mostly driven by economic necessity. Currently about two-thirds of Cambodian households are in debt, mostly to Micro-Finance Institutes (MFIs) where the interest rates range from 25-41 percent per annum. This has placed tremendous pressure on Cambodian families to repay their loans, and migration has become an alternative income option to do so.

Another factor is related to a high school dropout rate across Cambodia—21 percent at lower secondary and 27 percent at upper secondary school. Those who drop out of school often help with the family’s livelihood or migrate to find jobs in urban areas or overseas. The risk of falling victim to trafficking and exploitation is highest for those with limited education and limited access to information.

The Asia Foundation and local partner Khmer Youth Association (KYA) are currently working in the three provinces known as hotbeds for cross-border migration—Siem Reap, Prey Veng, and Kompong Cham—to reduce the incidence of trafficking of young people. Last year, we conducted a series of campaigns for a total of 2,580 students across schools to help raise their awareness of trafficking issues and safe migration practices. We also conducted half-day mobile campaigns, with community-youth participants who spread messages about the risk of trafficking on their bicycles, carrying loud speakers and banners to raise awareness, and distributing booklets that shared real trafficking stories and information about support services in Cambodia and abroad that migrants can access.

By the end of the campaign, the majority of participants were able to clearly articulate elements of smart labor migration, the consequence of labor migration, and what they should do if they believe they are being exploited or trafficked.

Since 2010, we have also been working with Kampuchean Action for Primary Education (KAPE) on a tertiary scholarship program that has provided university scholarships to a total of 147 female high school students from disadvantage families in Kompong Cham province, one of the most densely populated provinces in Cambodia and the second-largest origin community for young migrant laborers to Cambodia’s cities. Ninety-eight percent of the past two cohorts of graduates were successfully employed, and now serve as role models in their community where parents are encouraged to invest in girls’ education.

In the end, a combined approach that teaches safe migration, empowers households economically, and advances economic opportunity will be essential to Cambodia’s efforts to end human trafficking.

Lim Siv Hong is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in Cambodia. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Thailand
Related programs: Economic Opportunity, Empower Women
Related topics: Education, Labor Migration, Trafficking

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