By Matt Blomberg
PHNOM PENH, April 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — New agreements reached between Phnom Penh and Beijing to combat the trafficking of Cambodian "brides" to China will be useless without fresh funding and stricter enforcement, anti-trafficking groups warned on Monday.
Cambodia's Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Sunday announced a series of deals to fight transnational crimes, including human trafficking, however no details were made available.
Chou Bun Eng, deputy head of the ministry's National Committee to Counter Human Trafficking, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she had no new funds to address the issue and referred further questions to a ministry spokesman who said he had no information to share.
Over the past decade, tens of thousands of Southeast Asian women have been lured to China by criminal networks promising lucrative jobs, only to be sold as brides as China grapples with a gender imbalance of tens of millions of men.
"Its happening every day, this bride trafficking," said Dy Thehoya, senior program officer at the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, a Cambodian charity that helps repatriate trafficking survivors.
"The government creates mechanisms to address the problem but they are only on paper. In reality, they are ineffective due to poor implementation," he said.
In 2016, Phnom Penh said it had identified 7,000 Cambodian women living in forced marriages in China but anti-trafficking groups said the real total could easily be double that.
In recent years, Cambodia has introduced a number of policies to help address the problem, including heavier screening of Cambodian women who apply for travel visas.
This drove the trend further underground, human rights groups said, with an increasing number of women travelling overland through Vietnam and then across its mountainous northern border to China.
"It seems that the traffickers have relationships with officials from all sides," Thehoya said, adding that officials at Cambodian missions abroad had often been uncooperative when contacted for assistance. "They share the benefits."
Cambodian women who have returned from China often describe experiences of sexual, physical and psychological abuse, confinement, torture and forced labour.
Some escaped and made their way home while others have been sold on or discarded after producing a child for the man who bought them, usually for between $10,000 and $20,000, according to researchers.
Five Cambodian charities who work to locate, repatriate and rehabilitate women forced into marriage said that they received a new call asking for help every other day in 2018.
But finding the women and getting them out is almost impossible, as they do not understand the local language or know where exactly they are, have little or no access to phones and internet, and usually have their passports withheld.
"Sometimes, we simply can not help the victims" said Sa Im, who works on women's issues at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, a human rights group.
Im said that her organisation often lost contact with victims while trying to raise funds to bring them home, and called for the government to allocate more funds for repatriation.
"Officials and anti-trafficking police on the ground know and understand the problem but have no budget support," she said.
(Reporting by Matt Blomberg @BlombergMD; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)