Disputing the human trafficking statistics published by the United Nations and American press, government officials are less than enthusiastic in talks with Cindy Dyer
The cyberscam business is growing, the international community is increasingly concerned, and the Cambodian government is slow to respond.
When Cindy Dyer, the US Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, visited Cambodia in mid-November, her reception from government officials was not met with the same openness and enthusiasm as she received from civil society stakeholders. Indeed, a trip designed as “an opportunity for information sharing and coordination on anti-trafficking efforts,” according to the US Department of State, more often than not was greeted with denial and/or deflection.
Hoping to build the foundation for a solid relationship with the Hun Manet government, the ambassador met with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Labour and Social Affairs; the National Police and the National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT). She hoped her visit would encourage increased investigations and prosecutions of cyber-scam operations across the Kingdom; protection of victims of trafficking and vulnerable migrants, improving victim identification and referral, and addressing emerging trends in forced criminality.
Dyer‘s visit followed the release in August of a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, estimating that at least 100,000 people in Cambodia have been victimized — although the government reported just 259 human-trafficking cases in the first 10 months of 2023.
Shortly before Christmas, Dyer spoke with Focus Cambodia about her November 15-17 visit.
Focus Cambodia: As Ambassador at Large, what is your official role?
Ambassador Dyer: This specific position was created by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, to serve as a high-level advisor to the Secretary of State and the President. We are charged with coordinating the efforts of all the different US government departments, and partnering with foreign governments and international organisations to monitor the trafficking of persons.
We are responsible for researching, writing and distributing the Trafficking in Persons report on 188 countries. We follow the US definition, which is mostly in concert with the international definition, as a crime whereby traffickers exploit and profit at the expense of adults or children by compelling them to perform labour or engage in commercial sex. Both definitions focus on the traffickers’ acts, means and purpose for exploitation.
Focus Cambodia: You visited Cambodia in November to discuss human trafficking with government officials and citizen groups, especially with regard to the cyber-scam industry. Can you address the success or shortcomings of those meetings?
Ambassador Dyer: We have a pretty good view into what’s going on there. Individuals are fraudulently forced into labour. They were offered something that was a really good opportunity, but it wasn’t what was promised. The recruitment is all for the purpose of exploitation. It begins with fraud, but once they are on the compounds, the traffickers are very much using force and coercion, so they are not able to leave. They are threatened with harm and may be tortured, subjected to electrical shock, or sold for sex.
We had an opportunity to talk to a wide variety of people in Cambodia. The officials we talked to acknowledged that trafficking is a serious issue. But the downside is that the people we spoke to disputed the scale and reliability with regard to cyber-scam. This was disheartening, given the numbers of victims. They could point to some increases in their efforts, but they’re the small fish. They’re just not getting at the bigger problem.
Focus Cambodia: In mid-December, Sar Sokha, chairman of the NCCT in Cambodia, denied allegations from the foreign press that more than 100,000 Cambodians have been involved in online fraud. “In the past year,” he said, “there were 259 cases of forced labour involving seven nationalities. Police arrested 91 suspects involved in illegal detentions.” Do these statistics match those of your office?
Ambassador Dyer: We actually have very good reports, that there are probably more than 100,000 victims in Cambodia. We have first-hand accounts from survivors, and the UN report in August found the same thing.
Focus Cambodia: How is the new government responding? Cyber-scam operations have been singled out as a leading contributor to human trafficking, and there are unsubstantiated rumors that some Cambodian government officials give complicit support. Was this something you were able to discuss during your visit?
Ambassador Dyer: Yes. We actually did discuss this. I was able to fairly directly bring up this issue. Obviously, forced labour is a very serious, problematic issue. There’s no way we could see the scale of operation in Cambodia without there being both low-level and high-level complicity. I did bring that up. There are connections between businesses, casinos, labour-recruitment agencies and profit-sharing.
High-level government officials may be in the front for a business. The low-level enforcement officers know who owns these things. That’s very intimidating. They’re not willing to go in and put themselves on the line. And I also think that some of the low-level people are just so disheartened, they just think there’s nothing they can do.
Focus Cambodia: How did the government respond to the concerns you expressed? Did they offer a solution to enforcing laws against trafficking?
Ambassador Dyer: There were different responses. Some people simply changed the subject or talked about other things. When we did bring up concerns about corruption and complicity, we didn’t get much of a response.
Focus Cambodia: What does this look like within the regional and global context? The criminal networks operating these cyber-scam networks, and larger human trafficking rings as a whole, often involve actors from multiple countries.
Ambassador Dyer: We definitely know that some of the transnational organized criminal organizations first developed in the People’s Republic of China. Then these organisations expanded to other nations in Southeast Asia.
Thailand is being used as a transportation hub. Migrants may willingly accept a job offer in Thailand, then wind up being trafficked across the border to Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar. We are seeing it in Malaysia and the Philippines; we are now starting to see cyberscam operations in Georgia, Turkiye, Ghana and Central America. The criminal networks see it working here, and it’s spreading. We really hope that we can use international cooperation to stop it.
The individuals that the cyber-scams target do not fit the historical stereotype of the trafficking victim. They have language skills, IT skills. I wonder if this has made their plight less sympathetic.
We urge governments, civil society, and the private sector to work together to hold traffickers and complicit officials accountable; to protect victims, including those who have been forced by their traffickers to commit crimes; and to prevent these crimes from continuing.
If you or someone you know is a victim, please contact your nation’s embassy or call the human trafficking hotline at 01-888-373-7888.