* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Women have been forced to weigh the known risks of marriage migration against their financial situation
By Brandais York is a researcher in international marriage migration from Cambodia to China
It was recently reported that COVID-19 related unemployment is causing an increase in bride trafficking from Cambodia to China. As the garment, restaurant, and tourism industry has shrank, it would appear that the trafficking industry has found new momentum. However, I would like to take this opportunity to remind interested parties that this is a more nuanced and complicated issue, and that the continued perception of this form of migration as universally forced is both unhelpful and potentially damaging for the women involved.
Since 2012 I have researched the trend of Cambodian women who migrate through marriage to China. I have interviewed dozens of women, both those who have stayed in China and those who have returned to Cambodia. I have spoken to women who have been mistreated and abused at every stage of the process – from recruiters offering false promises of wealth, to being physically, mentally, and sexually abused by husbands, in-laws, Chinese police, and Cambodian consulate officials – as has been correctly and widely reported. Although rarer, some women are exploited from the very beginning, agreeing to migrate for work and instead being trafficked into a forced and exploitative marriage.
However, I have also spoken to many women who suffer more from disappointment than anything else, many of whom willingly describe their motivation to migrate through marriage as voluntary, largely driven by socio-economic disadvantage at home. Indeed, many thousands of women have chosen to stay in China despite cultural challenges, homesickness, and – unfortunately for most – continued economic disadvantage.
In addition, marriage migration is not new to Cambodia. In the early 2000s, thousands of women participated in marriage migration to Taiwan and South Korea. The trend continued multiplying in popularity each year until 2008 when the Cambodian government shut down the recruitment agencies. Previously, recruitment agencies for marriage migration had operated similarly to labor migration agencies in that they required registration with the Cambodian government.
Cambodia’s attempt to eradicate marriage migration by outlawing commercialised recruitment (as opposed to making the process safer) is interesting given that the concerns of abuse were consistently linked to the informal brokerage system, not the registered system. In fact, reports from the IOM and other NGOs issued in the months leading up to the new law emphasised regulating and improving the process, rather than institute an outright ban. As a result, all forms of marriage migration post-2008 now occur through illegal recruitment, making it more difficult to track their movements, and pushing them into further vulnerability.
As a result, the Cambodian government has refused to view marriage migration to China as anything other than trafficking. Instead, it has relied on victim blaming for cases that do not fit this narrowed lens. In conversations I have had with Cambodian government officials – both formally and informally – many have suggested or implied that the women who choose to go are simply ignoring the risks because they desire more; more material objects, more wealth, and higher wages. The assumption seems to be that the women are simply greedy.
In reality, most of the women who end up as “brides” in these cases come from economically disadvantaged farming communities in the poorest provinces in Cambodia. Further, Cambodian minimum wage standards have so far only been implemented within the garment and shoe industries and remain far below the living wage at US$190 per month.
Their economic status has forced these women to weigh the known risks associated with an irregular, precarious form of migration against what they perceive to be an impossible situation within their own country. Their conclusion has been that the possibility of better wages abroad is always worth the risk. Even if the condition of these potential wages includes a marriage with a man they have never met, in a county they have never been to.
To be clear, I do not discount the plight of marriage migrants who are exploited, abused, and trafficked. However, through years of research I have determined that a universal labelling of these women as “trafficked” is not appropriate. Ignoring the complexity of the issue disregards the systematic vulnerability of female migrants – indeed, women in general – in both Cambodia and the region.
Often, trafficking responses are created in response to victim stories. Treating marriage migration in the same manner is potentially doing a disservice to the women who are not victims. By only responding to the negative symptoms of marriage migration (i.e., trafficking cases), Cambodia has failed to address the root cause of the migration itself: that there has been very little work done to alleviate (or even to acknowledge) the need for women to migrate for economic reasons. In the time of COVID, this failure has just been pronounced.