Human Sex Trafficking: The Numbers in Cambodia

Cambodia’s unique economic challenges, history, and geographic location make it a hub for human trafficking and child sex trafficking. The country provides a large population source for new victims (along with neighboring Vietnam), is a transit point along many organized human trafficking routes, and is also a destination for traffickers and sex customers alike.

It is difficult to quantify the problem of sex trafficking in Cambodia due to the clandestine nature of the business, however in 2000, The International Organization for Migration estimated that up to 300,000 women and children are trapped in slavery-like conditions in the Mekong sub region, which includes Cambodia and surrounding areas in Southeast Asia. A 2016 report from the Global Slavery Index estimates 1.65% of the total population, or 256,800 people, in Cambodia live in conditions of modern slavery. There are an estimated 15,000 – 20,000 prostitutes in Phnom Penh alone – where our programs are located – and more than 15% of those are estimated to be children under the age of 15.1
Another NGO report cited by the U.S. Department of State found that children comprised 8.2% of the population of the most visible commercial sex establishments like brothels, beer gardens, karaoke bars, massage parlors, and salons. In recent years, it is noted that due to increased prosecution of child sex trafficking crimes, many traffickers are moving child victims to hidden locations like apartments, hotel rooms, and homes where they can be exploited less visibly.

The reasons for such high numbers of exploited women and children are complex. Although Cambodia has experienced tremendous growth in its economy over the last 20 years, it is still near the bottom of the human development index in terms of per capita income. Impoverished families struggling to provide for other children may often sell their daughters’ virginity, which in many cases will earn them up to 20 times an average weekly wage. UNICEF reports, “In Cambodia, virgins are sold for up to $800. This represents three times the country’s annual GDP per capita rate.”2 
There are many other entry points into this dark industry. According to UNICEF, “Thousands of children and women are lured, sold and kidnapped into the sex industry each year. They are often betrayed by their neighbors, friends, relatives, guardians and even boyfriends or parents, and they are tricked with false promises of a better life or well-paid work. They are then forced to pay off ‘debts’ for transportation, health and living expenses, subdued with rape, violence and torture and sold from brothel to brothel.”3 Many reports show that Cambodian men make up the bulk of demand for exploited children, but men from other Asian countries, the United States, Australia, European nations, and South Africa also travel to Cambodia to engage in child sex tourism.

Governmental intervention is absolutely necessary to begin solving this massive injustice. In 2007, the U.S Department of State placed Cambodia on their Tier 2 Watch List for not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and for having a “very significant or significantly increasing” number of victims of severe human trafficking. However, in 2016, Cambodia had made more efforts to comply with TVPA and was upgraded to Tier 2. Cambodia is making progress in the areas of victim protection, prevention, and prosecution of traffickers, but one of the largest unaddressed issues is corruption. According to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, “Endemic corruption at all levels of the government severely limited the ability of individual officials to make progress in holding traffickers accountable. However, the government did not investigate, prosecute, or convict any government employees complicit in trafficking…Our ministries in Cambodia are designed to address all areas of child sex trafficking in a holistic manner. We work to prevent sex trafficking through programs aimed at at-risk woman and children.

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