Fighting Human Trafficking: On the Ground in Cambodia
In the summer of 2011, Pavan R. Nagavelli JD ’14 strapped on a backpack and spent a few months traveling through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia. He was set to start his first year at Suffolk Law that fall and wanted get a closer look at Southeast Asia before buckling down.
What he saw in Cambodia and on the streets of Phnom Penh made returning more a matter of when than if.
"I didn’t really know how to leave," Nagavelli says. "When I saw the trafficking and the exploitation of men, women, and children ... I really wanted to come back and work on those issues in the field."
Nagavelli (center) at a meeting between SISHA and Cambodian government and police officials.
If Nagavelli was going to return to Cambodia, though, he wanted to get his hands dirty investigating trafficking and abuse cases, and sought a nongovernmental agency that would put him where there was the most need.
That agency was Southeast Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities (SISHA). As an intern for the group’s Cambodian operations, he ran information booths at “empowerment concerts” co-hosted by SISHA and MTV’s philanthropy branch MTV Exit, distributed packets about human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and “debt bondage” worker exploitation, and provided legal rights training for women and children.
More importantly for Nagavelli, interns were allowed to help with the group’s first-hand investigations, police training initiatives and negotiations with governmental agencies. It didn’t take long for Nagavelli to realize the scope of Cambodia’s trafficking problems.“You can imagine something, but when you’re on the ground you get a totally different understanding,”Nagavelli says.
Children enjoy an empowerment concert in Cambodia, co-hosted by SISHA and MTV Exit.
In Cambodia, about a third of the population live below the national poverty line, which is $18 a month, or about 60 to 70 cents a day. In recent years,droughts and floods have ruined crops and decimated already low incomes in rural communities. The government often lacks the funds for police training,legal infrastructure, and enforcement of existing laws.As a result, a trafficker’s promise of $100 to $300a month can seem worth the risk to economically vulnerable victims.
“The major thread between all of them — especially between victims trafficked as sex workers and laborers(which included many men trafficked out of Cambodia into Thailand to work on fishing boats) — is economic hardship,” Nagavelli says. “There are very few jobs that provide the sustenance needed to support a family, so some of these people who have been trafficked have done so because they believe there’s a chance to make more money.”
Nagavelli found out just how acute the problem was after interviewing a victim whose mother sold her when she was less than five years old, believing the buyer could offer her daughter a better education and more opportunity. In exchange, the mother received enough money to pay medical bills for her own mother.
“She thought this was a great opportunity for her daughter to get a better education and to help her own mother,” Nagavelli said. “The family she sold her daughter to ended up putting her to work in a slaughterhouse picking up bones from the floors.”
The girl was forced into labor for several years before her mother came to SISHA for help. SISHA rescued the child and put her in an aftercare program and counseling. She’s now going to school every day and leading a normal child’s life, but she also exemplifies the plight of many poor Cambodians.
Toward the end of Nagavelli’s internship, two individuals were trafficked out of Cambodia to work in Thailand on a fishing boat. They escaped and notified SISHA and police, thus sparking an investigation that led to the arrest of four brokers who were trafficking people out of the country. The brokers, a mother and her three sons, were trusted members of their community.
“A lot of times these people are being exploited not by random strangers saying ‘Hey, I have an opportunity for you,’ but by people they might trust,” Nagavelli says. “These people are distant relatives, commune chiefs, and people in the village.”
Although SISHA uses informational campaigns in rural villages to raise awareness and prevent such incidents, these efforts mean little without the support of all governments involved. Domestic servants are particularly at risk, as Nagavelli discovered while working with a United Nations-led group of nongovernmental organizations trying to prevent the trafficking of Cambodian workers to Malaysia. Domestic servants are offered a few hundred dollars up front to work in Malaysia as maids or nannies, only to have their passports held by their employers until they repay the “loan” by working months or years at low wages — with regular abuse and beatings thrown in for good measure.
Nagavelli helped draft a memorandum of understanding that would define what a trafficking victim is, set up protocols for investigations in Malaysia, and determine who to contact in Cambodia when a victim needs help. While international pressure has stemmed the flow of domestic workers from Cambodia to Malaysia for now, it hasn’t solved the problem entirely.
“This is tough for people who are already out of the country because it creates a labor shortage and results in employers forcing domestic workers to sign new contracts for several more years,” Nagavelli says. “Nobody wants to pay for repatriation, and that’s the big issue right now with human trafficking and debt bondage (trafficking victims who are laborers) — the economic hardship and that the countries are unwilling or unable to rectify the problem.
”Those same financial forces are at the root of other trafficking issues like police training and juvenile justice. Nagavelli sat in on meetings with Cambodia’s Ministries of Justice and the Interior to determine why Cambodians feel uncomfortable reporting incidents to the National Police or its anti-human trafficking branch. Their conclusion: Communities don’t trust the police because they don’t believe police are any help to them. Training is minimal to nonexistent, and police pay provides no incentive to conduct lengthy, far-flung investigations.
“Police earn maybe $100 a month, and it’s not enough to support their families and the investigations,” Nagavelli says. “Since they have to pay to drive out to rural areas and investigate, that’s money they’re not using to feed their families.”
Nagavelli (left) at the closing ceremony of SISHA's Criminal Investigation Training Course in Kompong Cham.
With funding from USAID, SISHA trained 500 officers and increased the number of reported trafficking cases as a result. But Cambodia’s police issues are minute compared to the plight of its juvenile justice system. Last summer, Nagavelli and SISHA consulted for a UNICEF program that brought in representatives from Cambodia’s National Police, youth agencies, and the Ministries of Justice and the Interior. They met to discuss solutions to a broken system that often throws children into adult prisons already at 200 percent capacity or greater, doesn’t enforce existing laws, and doesn’t recognize children as children because of the country’s lack of birth certificates and registries.
While Nagavelli, SISHA, and UNICEF have created guidelines for police, prosecutors, and judges to follow in juvenile cases, the project is ongoing and fundamental problems remain.
“You find out that there’s not enough room to house these children separately and they’re being put into prisons with adults,” Nagavelli says. “Some of these kids are as young as 14 or 15 years old and being housed with violent offenders and rapists in an environment that criminalizes them.”
—Jason Notte Flint
Excerpted from the Winter 2013 Suffolk Law Alumni Magazine
PROGRAMS ADMISSIONS FACULTY OFFICES & SERVICES
Suffolk University Campus Calendar Campus Cruiser Portal Law Library Directories Site Map
Login Email Mission Statement Contact Us