PHNOM PENH – Cambodia is expecting an influx of regional tourists next year when the ASEAN Economic Community is set in motion.
The integration is supposed to spur connectivity within Southeast Asia, with a freer movement of people, goods and services.
But such freedom is also of great concern to Cambodia’s government, as it fears more sexual predators will be attracted to the country’s infamous child-sex trade.
Poverty-stricken Cambodia is home to millions of vulnerable children.
Many live along the streets in big cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, where they scrape a living selling goods to tourists.
But such unguarded exposure has inherent risks, and incidents of child sexual exploitation are on the rise.
Child prostitution is illegal in Cambodia, but sex with underage girls and boys can be arranged without much difficulty, while efforts to combat this crime are weakened by limited law enforcement and endemic corruption.
Over the past years, there has been an increase in the number of commercial sex centres in Cambodia, and an increase in exploitation of children in the sex trade.
There is a close link between child sexual abuse in Cambodia and its fast-growing tourism industry.
According to the United Nations (UN) Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, Cambodia is an attractive destination for paedophiles, because it lacks tough law enforcement and child protection mechanisms.
Despite problems with corruption, the government is now starting to take robust action with more focused raids and arrests.
Lim Tith, national project coordinator at UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, said: “The government has made its best effort to eliminate the problem. Although it hasn’t uprooted the problem yet, the government has tried its best. It has a political will to do it, from raising awareness to arresting and punishing the traffickers.”
Last year, at least 44 people were arrested in connection with the sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia — 15 were travelling sex offenders.
But with the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community from next year, the government fears more offenders will be able to move freely around ASEAN, due to enhanced intra-region transport network and the subsequent convenience of cross-border travel.
According to Cambodia’s tourism ministry, information could be key prevention.
In cooperation with the Australian-backed Child Safe Tourism Campaign, the ministry is promoting simple actions, which can help protect children from abuse.
Hor Sarun, undersecretary of state of the Ministry of Tourism, said: “We’ve invested a lot of effort in educating local and international tourists about child-safe tourism.
“We really want the tourists’ participation. When they see any suspicious behaviour, they should report such activities by calling the national hotline 1288. Other hotlines are also available in other provinces.”
However, as anti-child sex tourism campaigns concentrate in big cities, sexual predators are moving to the country’s remote areas, where there is little knowledge of the crime, or the means to prevent it.
It is yet another front Cambodia will need to focus on, as its door opens even wider to the world