A Secret World of Modern Slavery: How Discrimination Makes Human Trafficking Victim and LGBT People in Cambodia Vulnerable to Being Trafficked in Person

By ILA  •  October 12, 2021  •  25 min read


Human trafficking is one of the biggest crimes in our 21st century where no country is left untouched by this issue. It’s a grave violation of human rights and has affected many children, women and men worldwide. This paper aims to provide a brief overview of human trafficking, and followed by human trafficking aspects in Cambodia. I hope to increase awareness and knowledge of this modern-day slavery to the public, especially to youth who are the leader of tomorrow. The study includes an overview of human trafficking and a brief background of the human trafficking issue in Cambodia. The study explores the discrimination status against the victim of human trafficking and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) in Cambodia and examines their vulnerability to human trafficking caused by discrimination. Lastly, we shall look briefly at what mechanism has been taken to cope with this issue by the government, NGOs and involving institutions and we will discuss what can be further alternatives in the conclusion.


What is Human Trafficking?

If we look into human history, slavery had its place in the past in most countries around the world. The last known practice of slavery was in Mauritania until it was abolished in 1981 and criminalized in 2007 by the Mauritanian government (Sutter, n.d). It’s a common thought among people that this disheartening experience was ended and buried in the history book. Unfortunately, slavery still occurs in our present day. And it just hides under what we call modern-day “Human Trafficking”. Every year, thousands of men and women, including children and adolescents fall victim to human trafficking where they are commonly traded for the purpose of labour and sexual exploitation

According to Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, human trafficking is defined as:

“…the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs” (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, n.d).

However, sometimes the term human trafficking is confused with human smuggling. Human trafficking is a labour or sexual exploitation of an individual by forcing, luring or coercing while human smuggling is a crime that involves a voluntary agreement between an individual and the smuggler in order to obtain an illegal entry to a foreign country (U.S Department of State, 2017). A person who is smuggled has a very high chance of being trafficked.

Background of Human Trafficking in Cambodia

Cambodia Country Profile

Fig.1. Map of Cambodia (Maphill, 2011)

Cambodia is a Southeast Asian country neighbouring Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The estimated population in 2013 is 15.5 million with more than 50% per cent being younger than 25 years old (Cambodia demographics profile, 2017). According to the Global Slavery Index (2016), the demographic of this country is immensely shaped by its turmoil political background in the past decades where around 2.2 to 2.8 million people were killed by the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge government. The young population with the demand for economic stability makes Cambodia a very vulnerable place for human trafficking (The Global Slavery Index, 2016).

Human Trafficking in Cambodia

Cambodia is home to the source, transits and destination of human trafficking (U.S Department of States, 2017). Cambodian people have been being trafficked to other countries while victims from both local and foreign communities have also been being exploited in the form of modern slavery in Cambodia. According to The Global Slavery Index 2016, there were approximately 256,800 out of 15.5 million Cambodian people, which was about 1.65 per cent of the population, who have been subjected to be living under modern-day slavery (The Global Slavery Index, 2016).

Human trafficking in the Cambodian context can be prevalently seen through different images such as sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude, children exploitation and bride trafficking.

Sexual Exploitation

When the topic of human trafficking is being discussed, a common mindset of most people in Cambodia directly links it to prostitution; prejudiced over the fact that human trafficking takes place in other forms as well. Nonetheless, prostitution doesn’t necessarily mean human trafficking. Some country legalizes prostitution while some country criminalizes it. However, many reports showed that prostitution has quite a close link to human trafficking. Prostitution encourages all forms of sexual exploitation and increases higher chances for human traffickers to commit the crime (The U.S Department of State, 2004) (Raymond, J. G. (2003) (Harvard Law School. (2014).

Before the French protectorate in 1863, little written history of Cambodia was kept because of the unrest wars with its neighbours, Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam.

According to Human Trafficking in Cambodia the book published by Keo Chenda, Cambodia also had its own slavery caste system as well but it was considered as morality wrong against the tradition to have sexual intercourse with the slave. Slavery was later abolished in 1961. During the French colonial rule (1863-1953), prostitution was legalized due to the demand from French troops who had been deployed in Indochina. However, after gaining independence, the laws against prostitution was imposed by King Sihanouk but later failed (Gilarowski, M. B. (2016).

From 1970 to 1975, a little record of prostitution was recorded due to political turmoil happened in the country. Some authors argued that “…severe sexual exploitation of women in Cambodia is a result of the way in which the sex industry was developed to serve the militaries that took part in the wars in the Mekong sub-region before 1975, particularly US soldiers”. (Gilarowski, M. B. 2016 cited in Jeffreys, Sheila, 2009)

From 1975 to 1979, prostitution in Cambodia was abolished under the Khmer Rouge Regime communist government. And if found convicted, the person could be punishable by death. From 1979 to 1990, Cambodia political regime was changed to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The PRK attempted to abolish prostitution in 1982 and sent sex workers to an island for rehabilitation but later failed to do so. From 190 to 1993, a similar attitude to the French colonial period was shared once again when the UNTAC (United Nation Transnational Authority in Cambodia) deployed its troops in Cambodia for peacekeeping operation (Gilarowski, M. B. (2016)

After the withdrawal of the UNTAC troops in 1993, a number of sex industries still remained. During the 2000s, prostitution in Cambodia continued to exist. The government had put a big attempt to shut down widespread throughout the country.

According to the latest Cambodian Laws on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation 2018, article 26:

“A person who commits procurement of prostitution shall be punished with imprisonment from 2 to 5 years”

And if the crime is more aggravated, according to article 27, the person shall be sentenced from 5 years to 10 years (The Royal Government of Cambodia, 2008).

Nowadays, prostitution is illegal in Cambodia, but still remained operating silently in the Kingdom, which continues pulling vulnerable women and girls to be the victim (U.S Department of States, 2015)

Labor Trafficking

While sex trafficking is the most known form of human trafficking, the biggest practice of human trafficking in the world is labour exploitation. Likewise, according to the Global Slavery Index (2016) in Cambodia labour exploitation comprised 70% of all human trafficking crimes.

Labour trafficking is also a prevalent form of human trafficking in Cambodia. Thus, it’s significant to understand the term. As defined by the US Department of state, labour exploitation is “the recruitment, harbouring, transporting, provision, or obtaining of a person for labour or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery” (U.S Department of State, 2004).

Obstacles in accessing education and struggling with poverty make children vulnerable to involvement in child labour (“Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor”, 2016) Cambodian victims of human trafficking in the form of labour exploitation have been trafficked to work on fishing vessels, in the factories, in the agricultural sector, in construction project and in domestic servitude in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. (U.S. Department of State, 2016)

Cambodian men have been subjected to being trafficked in commonly fishing vessels, construction work, factory and forced beggars. The most trafficked destination is Thailand, followed by Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. (Day, n.d.).

The emergence of gender imbalance because of the former One Child Policy in China has made vulnerable Cambodian women falling into victim of trafficked for marriage to China. Many Cambodian women had been lured by traffickers with the promise of a better life in China; yet faced miserable experiences upon arrival there. The victim was sold for marriage and often face sexual abuse and domestic servitude. (“Weddings from hell”, 2016).

The root cause of human trafficking

The cause of trafficking in persons is often complex and interrelated. However, there is some common root which can be identified based on the traits occurred in the region. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the common causes of human trafficking are poverty, lack of human rights, lack of social benefits, lack of local employment opportunity, oppression and conflicts in the country (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (n.d.).

Such factors increase the possibility of a person migrating to find better conditions in other countries and eventually ended up being easily exposable prey to a human trafficker. Other factor includes political instability, displacement of population, social practices, corrupt government officials and the weakness of laws enforcement (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (n.d.).

Some author claims that one of the main causes of human trafficking is the human trafficker him or herself being stronger than the justice system, which the lack of execution and laws practice needed to address (Richmond, J. C. 2017)

According to the study, 46% of the Cambodian population is vulnerable to traffickers Global Slavery Index (2016). This vulnerability is characterized by factors that include inequality in economic development; corruption; discrimination and gender inequality; lose of fertile agricultural land; natural disasters; debt; unsafe migration; and increased tourism. (UN-ACT, 2014)

What makes a person vulnerable to human trafficking?

Human Trafficking is a silent but huge crime. Everyone can fall victim to human trafficking. However, because of some social and economic issue, human trafficker seeks people who easily fall into prey of fail opportunities they make up.

According to the oxford dictionary, “vulnerability” means being “exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally” (English Oxford Living Dictionaries. (n.d.).

A discussion by the United Nations Office On Drug and Crime on a study of An Introduction to Human Trafficking: Vulnerability, Impact and Action came to define people who are most vulnerable to human trafficking. Those groups include children, women who are affected by social conditions and war, people who live in poverty, marginalized group or people who experience social exclusion, and refugees [7].

In short, the root causes of human trafficking are the common factors that increase the possibility of any person being trafficked. And people who is exposed to the possibility of being trafficked are called vulnerable people in the human trafficking context.

Who are the marginalized people?

Marginalization or sometimes called social exclusion refers to the demotion to a lower position of society because of the lack of rights, support, economic and social opportunity Inwork. (n.d.). Socially excluded groups are unfairly treated due to their background, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, caste, descent, gender, age, disability, HIV status, migrant status or their living location (Department for International Development. (2005). Hence, they are often socially and politically disadvantaged.

Human Trafficking through the lens of discrimination

The factors causing people falling into human trafficking victims are various and interrelated. It can link economic opportunity to the lack of enforcement of laws. However, if we look from another corner, discrimination also plays a notable role in pushing people to a higher risk of being trafficked.

Discrimination put people into unfair treatment resulted in negative psychological consequences such as depression, stress and anxiety. In society and the workplace, people who are discriminated against face the loss of performance, lower productivity and motivation to continue the job (Wilson, 2012)

Being socially excluded, marginalized people face a high risk of becoming vulnerable to human trafficking. In the study below, we will scan through the experiences of

LGBT and victims of human trafficking, who are being discriminated against in Cambodian society.

Victim of Human Trafficking

When migrating to other countries for work, migrant workers often bear the hope that they could find great opportunities and earn money back home. However, after becoming the victim of human trafficking, they often deal with social exclusion and negative perceptions toward them in their community. They face the perspective regarding them disgraceful for coming back home penniless and bringing back scandal. Women who have been trafficked might face discrimination in their own community because of their previous forced involvement in prostitution (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2008).

In Cambodia, numeral victims of human trafficking reported having been discriminated against in their community. Human trafficking victims for the purpose of exploitation in Cambodia face discrimination because of being past sex workers experiences. Afraid of being rejected by their family and society, some victim gets depressed and doesn’t want to return back home (Luigjes, M., & Ramaker, L. (n.d.).

While a small portion of the victims has the courage to reintegrate back into society, many of the victims is traumatized and it is hard to live in their community because of the fear of being shamed (Chak, 2010).

Facing difficulties upon their return, victims of human trafficking are often identified and returned to the environment that made them got trafficked before, and thus that resulted in the possibility of being trafficked again (The COMMIT Governments by UNIAP, World Vision, & NEXUS Institute. n.d.).

In a documentary video “Bride With A Price Tag”, a short film about a Cambodian woman who got lured into illegal marriage in China and later was trafficked into brothels by her family in-laws, the victim reveals that despite all tragedies that happened to her, she had faced discrimination from people in her village upon her arrival back home. She continued, “They looked down on me. They said it happened because my characteristic was wicked. Going to China bringing home nothing but problems.” (“Bride with a price tag”, 2016)

In the same documentary, Mr. Sokcha Mom, a program manager of Legal Support of Children and Women Partner of CTIP II added that “After the girls returned to their country, people in the community usually think that they are not good girls because they don’t understand the difficulties the victim had faced in China. They think the victim might have been so problematic that she couldn’t get along with her family in law”. (“Bride with a price tag”, 2016)

Facing such discrimination in their community, human trafficking victims are vulnerable to being trafficked again and should be taken into consideration when preventing re-victimization (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2008).


Cambodia is generally known to be tolerant toward homosexuality. There has never been any law in the constitution condemning LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) people for their sexual orientation (Equaldex.(n.d.).

The former King Sihanouk made a statement to support same-sex marriage and LGBT people as he was inspired by same-sex marriage in San Francisco, United States (“Cambodian king backs gay marriage”, 2004). Current prime minister Hun Sen although announced to disown his lesbian stepdaughter because of her relationship with a woman, later claimed to support LGBT rights (Global Forum on MSM & HIV. 2012). The famous political figure, when asked about same-sex marriage, had made statements that Cambodia needed to prioritize economic development first and the issue of same-sex marriage has yet to be considered on the agenda (Cambodian Center for Human Rights. (2010).

From a religious perspective, Buddhism, which is a dominant religion in Cambodia, has no negative perception of homosexuality. The relationship is acceptable as long as it generates happiness and wellbeing for each other (Robinson, 2010). In the Five Precepts in Pali Canon, the third precept for lay Buddhist to practice bans people from having sexual misconduct acts which are interpreted by Buddhist commentators as acts of rape, child molestation, sexual harassment and unfaithfulness to partner (“Buddhism and Homosexuality”, 2009). In Buddhism, there is no specific comment that refers directly to homosexuality. The rule and recommendation apply to both homosexual and heterosexual relationships (De Silva, A. L. (n.d.). Theravada Buddhism focuses on improving individuals to gain enlightenment and recommends celibacy as an element. Sexual behaviour should be pleasurable, respectful and affectionate (“Being LGBT in Asia: Cambodia country report”. 2014)

However, this doesn’t protect LGBT people from being socially and politically marginalized. Cambodia doesn’t have any legal to protect the LGBT community from being discriminated against in society and the workplace yet.

Although homosexual activities are generally tolerated in the country, Cambodian tradition places importance on marriage and traditional family units. Everyone is expected to get married and have children (Cambodian Center for Human Rights. (2010). Thus, people get confused and feel odd because LGBT they don’t reproduce for the continuation of a family link. According to an interview conducted by CCHR (2010) the same, LGBT relationship often perceived as less solid than the traditional heterosexual relationship one in building a family.

Some Cambodian parents disown their children because of their same-sex relationship and some has gone further to a forced marriage with an unwanted partner. Some LGBT people had reported to runaway avoiding forced relationships and seek jobs in another country like Thailand (Cambodian Center for Human Rights. (2010). Homelessness and discrimination acts make runaway LGBT people exposed to high risk to human traffickers who often seek for prey to deceive fail opportunities (“Breaking barriers”, 2015)

In the workplace, LGBT people in Cambodia experience being stereotyped and discriminated against (“Being LGBT in Asia”, 2014). The same study reports that there is a lack of jobs for LGBT with low educational levels and skills and eventually some seek to work as a sex workers.

LGBT students had reported being bullied at school and got neglected about their abuse by the teacher. According to a survey by Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) in 2015, 12.85% of students dropped school caused of bullying based on sexual orientation and gender discrimination (O’Connell, 2015). According to the Social Exclusion survey, 20 per cent of Gay males in Cambodia reached university education while Lesbian females reached 17%. However, only 6% of Transgender made it to university (“Being LGBT in Asia”, 2014).

Many reports of transgender abuse have sparked the country in recent years.

According to the survey conducted by CCHR, 92% of the surveyed trans women have been verbally abuse; 43% used to face physical violence; 31 per cent have been sexually assaulted, and 25% have been raped (RFA. 2016).

Social exclusion groups share similar experiences of being treated unfairly because of their background. This discriminative treatment leads them to become socially and politically disadvantaged. LGBT people who experience homophobic activities and get discriminated against for their sexual orientation often desperately find ways to escape from social exclusion and mistreatment (U.S Department of State. 2017). Victims of human trafficking who experienced being treated harshly and not being understood by their surrounding environment cannot comfortably live in their community often seek to move away. Thus, human traffickers see them as vulnerable prey for their fake promises.

Response to Human Trafficking

Cambodia, although home to many human trafficking crimes, has been increasingly making effort to combat trafficking in persons in the last decade. The government has cracked down on human trafficking and increased effort in rescuing the victim from brokers

The U.S Department of State upgraded Cambodia from tier 3 to tier 2 of Watch List to human trafficking issue, which means that human trafficking in Cambodia still exists largely on the ground but the government has shown effort to combat it (U.S Department of State, 2016)

The Royal Government of Cambodia has established involving institutions to fights against human trafficking in Cambodia. These institutions include:

-Department of Legal Protection, including the Office of Prevention of Trafficking in Women and Children (1999) (Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA)

-Department of Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection (2002) (Ministry of Interior (MoI)

-Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT) Task Force (2005) (MoWA, with UN-ACT as secretariat)

-Office of Anti-Human Trafficking (2009) and Section on Anti-Human Trafficking (2002) (National Royal Gendarmerie)

-National Committee to Lead the Suppression of Human Trafficking, Smuggling, Labour Exploitation and Sexual Exploitation of Women and Children (2010)

-Department of Anti-Human Trafficking and Reintegration (2011) (Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY)

-National Tasks Force (NTF) to implement bilateral and multilateral agreements and –MoUs with foreign countries for eliminating trafficking and assisting victims (2007)

High-Level Working Group (HLWG) to lead the suppression of human trafficking, smuggling, labour exploitation and sexual exploitation of women and children (2007) (MoI)

– National Committee also includes technical working groups on:

Prevention, Protection, Rehabilitation, Reintegration and Repatriation, Law Enforcement, Justice, International Cooperation, Child Affairs, Migration, and Monitoring and Evaluation” (UN-ACT, 2014)

While the government’s effort to combat trafficking has shown to be strong, the lack of enforcement of the policies, national mechanism and legal framework to combat trafficking in person, limited the outcome (Thai, 2016).

The victim of human trafficking mostly get support from NGOs who provide services and use methods based on their particular missions and capacities. (Global Slavery Index, 2016)


While the main cause of human trafficking in Cambodia links to poverty, discrimination against trafficking in person victim, LGBT, other marginalized groups, also raises a notable portion, which should be taken into consideration when combating human trafficking. Discrimination against any individual does not only disable them from being socially benefited and emotionally supported but also prevent further growth for the country.


Human Trafficking is a wide and complex issue. I applaud all the effort that the Royal Government of Cambodia and NGOs has made in the previous years to combat human trafficking. And I hope more effort will be made to make Cambodia a safe land from modern-day slavery. While we are along the way to tackle this issue, I would like to make some suggestions based on the research. Some mechanisms might have been planned for implementation or have been taken under consideration. This paper is not conclusive information of human trafficking in Cambodia but a platform for further discussion and an initial point for making a change:

Since more than 50% of the country, population are less than 25 years old and potential labour force, the engagement of youth in human trafficking awareness-raising is very significant. Understanding the nature of human trafficking will help the young population from falling prey to human traffickers. The government and NGOs should launch more campaigns engaging youth both in the local community and city for awareness-raising.

Cambodia experience the increase in a number of people have access to a smartphone (Kimchhoy Phong, K., Srou, L., & Solá, J. 2016), Therefore, developing application and software to foster awareness-raising of human trafficking through technology is very beneficial.

The Cambodian government should implement the enforcement of laws against human traffickers more effectively. The government should extend regional and international networks to detect human trafficking and protect migrant worker rights. Recruitment agencies bringing people to work abroad should be restricted and thoroughly checked.

Cambodian government shall provide more support to the victim of human trafficking, increase expert and developability of the government staff to support and assist the victim of human trafficking

The government shall continue to improve the practice of mechanism and framework, which has been created in fighting against trafficking in person.

The government should provide vocational training to low skilled workers and vulnerable people, who face a high potential of migrating to other countries. The government shall make the process of obtaining legal migrant status faster, easier, and cheaper to prevent people from migrating legally.

The government shall establish laws to protect LGBT citizens from being discriminated against in the workplace in a legal context.

Cambodian people shall not discriminate against any individual and maintain tolerant culture toward every human being.

Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport of Cambodia should raise awareness against sexual orientation and gender-based discrimination by including the issue in the school curriculum.


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