By Matt Blomberg
PHNOM PENH, June 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cambodia is not doing enough to combat human trafficking, the United States said on Thursday, leaving the Asian nation at risk of economic sanctions unless it takes firmer action.
Corruption impedes law enforcement, prosecutions and provision of services to victims, the influential Trafficking In Persons report said, downgrading Cambodia from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 Watch List, one step above the lowest rank of Tier 3.
"Against a backdrop of insufficient government oversight ... authorities did not investigate credible reports of official complicity with unscrupulous business owners who subjected thousands ... to human trafficking," it said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan questioned the purpose of the ranking system and referred questions about corruption to the Interior Ministry's counter-trafficking agency.
"We are also suffering in hearing that corruption and brokers have strong connection to destroy our efforts," said the agency's vice chairwoman Chou Bun Eng.
"However the efforts to overcome human trafficking cannot be made by only one ministry or institution."
More than 260,000 of Cambodia's 16 million people are trapped in modern slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation, often in farms, fisheries and construction, many of them children.
Thousands more are thought to have been trafficked internationally, including Cambodian women who are forced to marry men in China.
Campaigners agreed that graft and a lack of political will had hampered efforts to address human trafficking.
"We question the capacity of police," said Meas Sa Im, deputy head of women's and children's affairs at ADHOC, a human rights group that helps Cambodian trafficking victims.
"They have no budget, no resources," she said, adding that low-level police were often unwilling to investigate for fear of interfering with the business of "high-ranking people".
Cambodia announced reforms to crack down on trafficking after it was placed on the Tier 2 Watch List in 2015 - which gives countries three years to demonstrate improvements or be relegated to Tier 3, where punitive measures can be activated.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng said in a speech in April that police had handled 134 trafficking cases in 2018 and that the government was forging relationships with its neighbours to root out trafficking networks.
Cambodia also signed a series of agreements with China in March to tackle forced marriage and cross-border trafficking.
But such efforts do not always translate to results on the ground said Dy Thehoya, who works with trafficking victims at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.
"The Cambodian government appears to take serious action to combat human trafficking," he said.
"But when the orders are passed down to the implementing agencies, effectiveness is still a problem ... It's a mixture of corruption and carelessness. Authorities need to stop sharing in the profits with perpetrators."
An influx of Chinese investment in the coastal town of Sihanoukville, where more than 50 casinos have sprung up, is causing concern to Maggie Eno, co-director of M'Lop Tapang, a child protection charity.
"We are seeing 13-year-old girls dropping out of school to work in casinos (where there is a) very, very high risk of exploitation and trafficking," she said.
"We have seen a sudden appearance of Chinese sex workers in Sihanoukville, but we don't see any government work on this."
The Interior Ministry created a special police taskforce in the area last year, after the provincial governor warned of a spike in "Chinese mafia" activity.
The Chinese Embassy in Cambodia did not respond to requests for comment. (Reporting by Matt Blomberg, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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