Preventing trafficking in Cambodia

Human traffickingWorking through the local church

By Tim Amstutz

For many years, Cambodia has been the focus of international attention as a place where people are trafficked, both into and out of the country. Why is this so?

Cambodia's problems are complex: poverty, weak family and community support systems, poor law enforcement, corruption at every level of government and society, and a fatalistic worldview (a belief in destiny, which makes people believe they have no power to change their lives). When all of them combine, they create a web of risk factors which are all connected. Some problems are too large to be dealt with at a community level. Some need a response at an international level

The best known form of trafficking is sex related: girls (and now increasingly boys as well) are taken either by force or deception to work in brothels, beer gardens and karaoke establishments and expected to have sex with customers. Certain ethnic groups in Cambodia are targeted for sex trafficking because the women are 'prized' for their fairer skin.

However, in many cases human trafficking is not sex related, but labour related. For example, young men are tricked into working on Thai fishing boats for no pay, or young women are recruited to serve as domestic workers in countries throughout Asia where they often suffer serious physical abuse and do not get paid.

Poverty is the main cause of human trafficking in Cambodia. If a family is poor, it is very vulnerable to trafficking, especially if family members have not had much education. Children and adults are both more vulnerable if they live close to a border with another country and illegal border crossing is common. They can easily find themselves trafficked into the other country with no rights and no legal system to protect them.

World Relief Cambodia has two key priorities that help us to choose how we respond to the challenge of trafficking and exploitation. The first priority is to empower and work with the local church. The second is to focus on prevention rather than rescue. We believe that it is better in the long term to help churches and communities to stop trafficking before it starts.

We help to prevent trafficking by raising awareness about the dangers of trafficking as part of all our existing programmes. For example:

  • Our groups for children and young people learn the 'lies traffickers tell'; (see page 8 and 9) so that they know how to identify and report suspicious activity in their communities.
  • The church-run adult health education groups spend time talking about the importance of families having long-term hopes and dreams, not just short-term goals. They also discuss how to prepare for that better future so that they are not tempted to look for quick financial gain.
  • Church leaders and members learn how to be advocates for the protection of their children and how to create welcoming places of care for those who have already been exploited.
  • Local community leaders learn how to make their community more stable. They receive training so they can teach villagers about the risks of migrating across borders and explain how to migrate safely for work.

We have seen remarkable results as villagers begin to understand the true dangers of trafficking. Mothers have wept for their sons whom they have not heard from for more than two years and asked us to help to bring their children home safely. We then linked them to professional services to help them locate their sons.

More children stay in education in villages where we have run awareness-raising workshops because parents have learnt how to protect their children and prepare a better future for them. Fewer people migrate away from the communities where we work, particularly ones where we have started savings groups. As community members start savings groups they can grow their businesses by borrowing money from the group. This makes them less vulnerable to the traffickers and their lies, and less likely to migrate to find work in places where they might also be exploited.

We have learnt a lot from doing this work. Here are some of the keys to success:  

  • Use existing groups for awareness-raising and prevention education Always use existing community-based groups, such as churches and regular gatherings of community leaders, to increase their awareness of, and commitment to, stopping trafficking before it starts.
  • Use volunteers We give volunteers from these church and community groups the information and training they need to spread awareness about the risks of trafficking throughout the community, and so help prevent it.
  • Make an impact that lasts Awareness-raising will not translate into real prevention of trafficking unless all members of the community understand the dangers. Also, the whole community must commit to protecting themselves in ways that they themselves have developed and chosen.
  • Keep it simple Most churches and community groups are not equipped to run programmes that need complex skills or professional training, such as organising a rescue or trauma counselling of survivors. Instead, they should focus on prevention work such as awareness-raising and activities that strengthen communities vulnerable to trafficking.

Tim Amstutz is Country Director of World Relief Cambodia. You can find out more about the work of World Relief on their website: www.worldrelief.org or by emailing TAmstutz@wr.org

The 'continuum of care' shows the variety of ways to respond to trafficking, from prevention to rehabilitation.
The 'continuum of care' shows the variety of ways to respond to trafficking, from prevention to rehabilitation.
Tim Amstutz