Asia Pacific / Social Issues

Family ties thwart Cambodia's efforts to tackle bride trafficking to China

by Matt Blomberg

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Although a rising number of Cambodian women are being sold as brides in China, complaints and convictions are on the decline, with many victims refusing to speak out because their families are colluding with trafficking rings, a regional police chief says.

Thousands of Cambodian women have gone to China in recent years on the pretense that they would be able to marry, work and send money home to their families, only to find themselves sold into forced — and often abusive — marriages, campaigners say.

But survivors who return to Cambodia often decide against filing police complaints because they fear implicating their relatives in criminality, according to Thol Meng, deputy chief of the anti-trafficking bureau in the province of Kompong Cham.

“When a victim gets in trouble in China, the family seeks our help to rescue them, but once they get home, the families do not want to cooperate,” said Meng, whose province is a major hub in Cambodia for traffickers seeking to send people to China. “Maybe they (relatives of victims) are concerned that we will find that they received money from the traffickers,” he said in an interview.

China’s one-child policy and preference for boys has created a huge gender imbalance that reverberates across Southeast Asia.

China will have an excess of 40 million men of marrying age by 2020, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Although the policy was relaxed in 2016, its legacy remains, fueling the trafficking of women and girls from Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, according to campaigners.

Almost 7,000 Cambodian women have been trafficked to China and forced into marriage, the government said in 2016 — the latest available official data. But campaigners say the real number is likely far higher, with many cases going unreported.

Kompong Cham saw four trafficking convictions last year — down from 20 in 2015 — despite the demand for Cambodian brides in China “rising sharply” in recent years, according to Meng.

Originally, the traffickers were Chinese or out-of-town Cambodians, the police chief said. They stood out when visiting the country’s far-flung areas, but have since changed tactics and recruited locals — known as “brokers” — to do their work.

“Many of these brokers, they don’t really know what they are doing — just that they can get $100 for each girl,” Meng said, adding that the four convictions last year were all of local women who personally knew the victims they helped send to China.

“Personally, I feel that they are also victims,” he added. “I pity them, but the law does not compromise.”

The masterminds, he said, had peddled their lies to the point where “brokers” would send their own offspring to China.

In response, police have been traveling to the poorest and most remote parts of the province to hold forums on the dangers.

Attendance is good and the response generally positive, Meng said, but he fears the lure of life abroad — and the desperation of poor families — will keep driving young women toward China.

“I guess no matter how much information we spread on the risks and dangers, the reality is that people need to support their families, so they will go after all,” he said.

“They are not hard of hearing. They are desperate and poor.”