Human Trafficking and Moral Panic in Cambodia: The Unintended Consequences of Good Intentions

Bouhours, Thierry, Broadhurst, Roderic, Keo, Chenda and Bouhours, Brigitte, Human Trafficking and Moral Panic in Cambodia: The Unintended Consequences of Good Intentions (December 17, 2012).

Full article available at SSRN: or

Cambodia was one of the first countries to enact an anti-trafficking law in 1996. This was one of the harshest laws in the country and punished trafficking as severely as premeditated murder. Although there was some concern about human trafficking (HT) within Cambodia, a global campaign led by the United States, was waging a “war on human trafficking” which required action by the passage of the anti-HT law to ensure the continuation of development aid. This paper critically assesses the impact of the new law and interviewed prisoners, police, court officials and other actors involved in anti-trafficking work in Cambodia. The law effectively criminalised commercial sex work and become a source of rent-seeking for police and justice officials, in a dysfunctional criminal justice system. Most of those caught by the new law come from among the poorest of Cambodians. Little evidence for the role of organised crime and high profits from the HT business was found. The study illustrates the unintended consequences of the moral campaigns against HT and prostitution in Cambodia.

A key aspect was a sample of 91 convicted ‘traffickers’ held in Cambodian prisons who were interviewed about their role in human trafficking (HT). This sample represented 45.7% of all incarcerated traffickers then held in the eight prisons covered by the study. The majority were Cambodian (81.3%) and the others Vietnamese or Thai. Their age ranged from 16 to 64 years, with a mean age of 38.5 years. Two male offenders had been under the age of 16 at arrest. On average female traffickers were significantly older than male (37.7 years and 32.3 years respectively). Most of the participants had very limited education: nearly one-third (30.8%) were Khmer illiterate (with a similar proportion of males and females). Even when they did attend school, women had significantly fewer years of education than men. Even by Cambodian standards, 80% were “poor” or “very poor,” and 20% just above the poverty line. The majority of the prisoners had been charged with or convicted of human trafficking (69.2%), but there were differences in the offending patterns of male and female inmates. Over 87% of the women had been charged/convicted of human trafficking compared to only 47.7% of the men. On the other hand, a larger proportion of men (26.1%) than women (4.1%) had been charged/convicted of procuring for prostitution. Of the 91 incarcerated participants, 83 had been convicted and eight were in remand. A large majority of the 83 convicted individuals (n=70, 84.3%) had been convicted of human trafficking or abduction, or for being an accomplice in such cases, and 13 were in prison for procuring for prostitution.


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