The Issue

Sex Trafficking

Human trafficking is defined by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center as “a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against his or her will.”

Sex trafficking is when adults and children engage in commercial sex acts against their will as a result of violence, threats, lies, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion at the hands of sex traffickers. Victims can be stolen or kidnapped, sold by parents or other family members, or even trafficked by someone close to them. According to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, “Traditionally, traffickers have subjected women and girls to sex trafficking in brothels, bars, and massage parlors; however, in an attempt to better conceal their crimes, some traffickers have changed tactics and now exploit victims in hotel rooms and private apartments, making them harder for law enforcement to detect.”1

Sex trafficking exists throughout the world and is a multi-billion dollar industry.2 The International Labor Organization estimated that there were 20.9 million people trafficked for forced labor in 2012, and 4.5 million of those were victims of forced sexual exploitation. Total profits from sex trafficking worldwide were estimated at $99 billion, with the Asia-Pacific Region being the most active area in the world for this horrible practice.

In Cambodia, on a daily basis, we witness firsthand that sex trafficking of adults and children is prolific – sometimes in very obvious and visible ways, but more often as part of a dark, underground economy. Learn more about sex trafficking in Cambodia where AIM’s programs are located.

Sex Trafficking 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 Organisation for Migration estimated that up to 300,000 women and children are trapped in slavery-like conditions in the Mekong subregion, 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 many of AIM’s 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 Indeed, many of the rescued girls in AIM’s programs tell us that after their virginity was sold, they faced pressure from family to remain in the sex industry because of the profits they can achieve for their family.

Photo courtesy of Sacramento Bee 2010 ©

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 neighbours, 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 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…”

AIM’s programs in Cambodia are designed to address all areas of child sex trafficking in a holistic manner. We work to prevent it through programs aimed at at-risk children, youth and families as well as reaching out and educating local men on the issue; we rescue victims by working with local authorities and employing our own investigative SWAT Team; we restore survivors and help them with reintegration into society by providing education, better employment options, and so much more.

History of Cambodia

Cambodia is a small country in Southeast Asia, sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand, with a border on the Gulf of Thailand near the South China Sea. The country of just over 15 million people is actually officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia and is run as a constitutional monarchy. The official religion is Buddhism, and the ethnic origin of 90% of its residents is from the Khmer empire, which can trace its history to the early 9th century in that area.

Understanding the modern problem of human trafficking and sexual slavery in Cambodia is difficult without a basic knowledge of recent history in the country. In the 19th century, territories around Cambodia were colonised by European superpowers. Although the country was largely ignored, Cambodia entered the Indochinese Union (controlled by the French) until World War 2. When France fell, Cambodia was administered by the Vichy government and was under Japanese occupation until March 1945, when the Japanese overthrew the colonial regime. Four years earlier in May 1941, a communist army led by Hồ Chí Minh, the Viet Minh, began a revolt against the Japanese. Vietnam declared independence in August 1945 and extended the war, known as the First Indochina War, against France by invading territory in the rest of Indochina, including Cambodia.1

After years of struggle between the Japanese, Chinese, and French in the region, Cambodia declared its independence in 1953. Cambodia remained largely neutral in continued disputes in the region throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, but by 1969, areas in the north of the country were actively occupied by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), making Cambodia a target for U.S. bombing operations in the Vietnam war. The country’s leader, Prince Sihanouk, sent mixed-messages to the United States during that time by wishing to remain neutral, but sometimes publicly criticising South Vietnam and not allowing the U.S. to use Cambodian airspace and air bases. All of these factors combined led to a political polarization of the country and the rise of a communist party, the Khmer Rouge, which would drastically alter the course of Cambodia’s future.

In March of 1970, a military coup against Prince Sihanouk threw an already destabilized Cambodia into a dangerous tailspin. Fighting erupted between the new government, which aligned itself with the United States, and communist supporters in support of the Khmer Rouge. North Vietnam quickly sent forces to gain control of territory in the north and east, and civil war erupted, driving millions of refugees into the cities and especially Phnom Penh. On New Year’s Day 1975, the Khmer Rouge launched a massive attack on the city and officially took control of the country. What followed was a mass exodus from the cities as the new communist leadership sought to completely restructure society. People were sent into the countryside to work as farmers in a new collectivist agricultural economy, and Cambodia had neither a currency nor a banking system.

During the evacuation and its aftermath, people were starving and dying of disease by the thousands. Most urban residents lacked the skills to survive in an agrarian economy, so when they were resettled in newly created villages, which lacked food, agricultural implements, and medical care, many of them starved before the first harvest. In addition to rampant hunger and starvation, most military and civilian leaders of the former regime were executed. The Khmer Rouge was brutal and strict, distrusting anyone who might not sympathise with their communist beliefs. Certain groups, including businessmen and bureaucrats, suffered targeted and violent persecutions; and entire families and villages were attacked with the goal of eliminating them. In many areas of the country, people were rounded up and executed for things like speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, scavenging for food, and even crying for dead loved ones.2 It was even reported that some Khmer Rouge loyalists were killed for failing to find enough ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to execute.

Today, over 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era have been found all over Cambodia. The death toll has been estimated by the United Nations to be between 2 and 3 million people, with at least half of the deaths due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease in those years.

In 1979, the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by invading forces from Vietnam and the country was once again occupied. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established, but Cambodia remained torn by internal fighting amongst guerilla groups with opposing visions for the country’s future. Tens of thousands of more people died in the fighting, until peace efforts began in Paris in 1989. In 1991, a comprehensive peace agreement allowed the United Nations to take over governing control of Cambodia until elections were held in 1993. Although imperfect, the transitional years since then have led to Cambodia’s reform into the constitutional monarchy that it is today, with an operating liberal democracy at its core. The constitution that was subsequently ratified guarantees citizens a wide range of internationally recognised human rights.

With an understanding of the deep and recent scars in every area of its society, Cambodia’s current challenges with human trafficking are easier to comprehend, despite their horrific nature. During the years of the Khmer Rouge, family structures, cultural institutions, and the entire fabric of society was destroyed, leaving the people of Cambodia with a demoralized and debased view of human worth that was almost necessary for survival through that time. Through building relationships, contributing to economic and social stability, and sharing the love of Christ, AIM is working daily to overcome these deep societal wounds and bring about true healing and a redeemed view of the value of each individual. This slow and steady work is bringing about great change in the lives of the Cambodians we serve and creating hope for future generations in the country.

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