EU, UN reschedule launch of anti-human trafficking project in Cambodia after questions about venue

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The European Union and the United Nations this week abruptly postponed the launch of an anti-trafficking program after facing questions over the choice of location: a hotel in Phnom Penh owned by a Cambodian magnate who has another property that used by human traffickers.

The launch of the EU-UN “PROTECT” project, which aims to help prevent violence against women and children, human trafficking and migrant smuggling, was due to take place in Cambodia on May 3 at the Phnom Penh Hotel. The facility is owned by LYP Group, a conglomerate wholly run by the family of tycoon Ly Yong Phat, a Cambodian senator with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Manet.

Although Ly Yong Phat himself has not faced human trafficking charges, a casino operated by his company has been raided at least twice. Both times, authorities rescued people who had been forced to work there due to call center scams and other illegal activities.

After being questioned by The Associated Press about the choice of a LYP Group hotel for the programme’s launch, local offices of both the EU and UN agencies involved responded that they had decided to move the event to a later date . The UN added that the location of the event was “under assessment”.

In Brussels, the European Commission refused to comment further on the situation and referred all questions back to the EU delegation in Cambodia.

UN Resident Coordinator for Cambodia Joseph Scheuer, who was due to participate in the event, said he understood that the Phnom Penh Hotel had been chosen as the venue by the Cambodian government.

“I believe the relevant authorities have investigated this further … and are taking appropriate action,” he said.

The problem of human trafficking in Southeast Asia has been a key area of ​​focus for the UN, which said in a report last year that around 100,000 people had been trafficked and forced to work in online scam centers in Cambodia. Another 100,000 were forcibly held in similar situations in Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines and Thailand.

Cambodian authorities have acknowledged the existence of human trafficking and fraud centers but have rejected the UN figures. Cambodian authorities have claimed that many cases of alleged human trafficking are in fact disputes between employers and employees.

According to the Ministry of Interior, authorities raided LYP Group’s O’Smach Resort casino on Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand in October 2022 and March 2024, rescuing several suspected human trafficking victims.

Such operations often lure people from across the region with the promise of legitimate jobs, then force them to work against their will in centers involved in online and phone scam operations.

Following the latest raid on the O’Smach Resort, Thai authorities said 19 of the resort’s nationals were among about 50 rescued people forced to work in a Taiwan-run scam operation. exposed to electric shock or other abuse.

Several victims rescued from O’Smach scam operations said they were recruited by agencies and into what they thought was a customer service job in Thailand. But they told human rights groups directly involved in their rescue that they were then trafficked across the border into Cambodia, forced to work without pay, not allowed to leave the compound and threatened with death if they sought help.

Taiwanese authorities have confirmed that some of its citizens have been rescued from O’Smach Resort scam operations, but have not specified when.

Reached by phone, Ly Yong Phat passed the call to an assistant, who hung up when asked about the allegations of human trafficking and criminal activity at LYP Group properties. The LYP Group, of which Ly Yong Phat is chairman, did not respond to requests for comment.

The EU-funded US$13 million “PROTECT” initiative is led by UNODC, UNICEF, UN Women and the International Labor Organization, in partnership with the Cambodian Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training.

Ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment on the choice of location for the project’s launch.

Anti-trafficking advocates criticized the original decision to host an anti-trafficking event at a property owned by LYP Group, given the O’Smach Resort’s history.

“The international community must approach engagement in Cambodia with more due diligence to avoid unwittingly legitimizing the most pernicious actors,” said J. Daniel Sims, an expert on transnational crime at the United States Institute of Peace.

He added that police should have contacted the property owner in every reported case of human trafficking, so it was difficult to believe that Ly Yong Phat was unaware that the casino complex had been used by scam centers for several years.

“In my view, there is no argument for plausible deniability,” he said.

Regional watchdog group Cyber ​​Scam Monitor said in a written statement that while Cambodia “claims to be serious” in the fight against the online scam industry, only low-level workers have been arrested in raids, while “the landlords and protectors appear to be untouchable are.”


Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.