Svay Rieng province
Hundreds of Cambodians travel to Vietnam every year to beg. Officials say a change in attitude among the beggars is needed, but others believe grinding poverty leaves them no alternative
Photo by: Thomas Gam Nielsen
Twenty-year-old former child beggar Ly Chhat stands in front of his soon-to-be finished motorbike repair shop.
BAREFOOT with rashes on his arms and the tell-tale wheezing of an asthmatic, 54-year-old Suon Krouch sits inside his thatch to escape the baking midday sun.
As a father of 10 with no regular work, his poverty is exacerbated by flooded farmland and empty fish ponds.
To counter the situation, he says, he rented his eight-year-old son in April to a beggar broker from their region and was expecting a US$50 return each month from his son's panhandling in Ho Chi Minh City.
Money arrived the first month, but on the next payday the broker delivered a no-money message: "Your son is missing, so I cannot give you anything."
After threatening the broker with police involvement, $150 shut Suon Krouch's mouth and fed his hungry family for some time. His son remains missing. When asked how he could rent his son in the first place, he answered: "We felt scared of losing our boy, but we sent him anyway because we needed the money."
So far this year, 746 people have been recorded as having been bussed back from Vietnam to Svay Rieng province as part of ongoing cooperation between the two governments. The actual number of people involved could not be determined, as recent research shows that in some cases an individual can be deported from Vietnam as many as five times in one year.
Most of the Cambodian beggars come from the border area of Kampong Ro and Chantrea districts, where a woman the Post spoke to started her begging activities in 1984.
Skewed attitude to blame
In 1996, the Department of Social Affairs, Youth and Rehabilitation in Svay Rieng began working with Vietnamese authorities to help repatriate Cambodian beggars. Its director, Va Saren, sees poverty and low levels of education as key factors driving people to take up begging, but he also blames a skewed attitude to parenting among many of the villagers.
"Parents are sometimes greedy and want to be rich, and they do not think about the children's future education," Va Saren said, adding that many children are not in a position to object to their parents' commands.
After crossing the border, most beggars go to Ho Chi Minh City, population 6.6 million, where they will often know some relatives.
According to Va Saren, some earn a decent amount of money, which makes the begging industry look prosperous to neighbours back home.
We felt scared of losing our boy, but we sent him ... because we needed the money
"Some of them go voluntarily because they see others coming back from Vietnam with a whole lot of money," he said.
In Svay Rieng, the government runs a program called Trafficking Prevention and Victim Protection, together with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The program's statistics from 2007 show that two-thirds of the roughly 1,000 Cambodians registered as having been begging in Vietnam were children, and although some travelled with their parents, more travelled with other relatives, neighbours, by themselves or with brokers.
Ly Chaat, 20, was 10 years old when his father rented him to his uncle for begging.
He said that at first he was excited to be going to another country for the first time but was soon shocked by the harsh realities of life on the street.
"I needed to provide my uncle with 60,000 dong ($3) each day, and if I could not find enough he would hit me," Ly Chaat said, adding that when he went home to visit his parents with the collected money, it was hard leaving them again for a beggar's life on the streets.
"I did not want to go back because I knew I would be beaten by my uncle, but at home life was very difficult and I would not have been able to find a job to support my brothers and sisters," he said.
Ly Chaat stopped after three years of begging, when his mother died in 2001, and his father now takes care of his 10 children by himself.
He is classified as a victim of trafficking because he went to Vietnam without his parents. But he might disagree with the term.
According to the IOM's 2007 statistics, 97 percent of people classified as victims of trafficking said they went to Vietnam voluntarily, highlighting the startling difference between trafficking as defined by governments and nongovernment organisations - which are built on UN definitions - and the view of trafficking among the villagers themselves.
Providing new opportunities
Besides using education as a way of preventing trafficking, government programs have tried to offer families new income-generating opportunities to help counter their dependence on begging.
So far this year, 18 families of trafficking victims were given training on how to feed and breed fish to sell at the market, while another 64 families received vegetables and farming education.
"Some [of the beggars] are children of teachers and commune council members, [and] we always go to the communities to educate, and explain to parents about the children's right not to be trafficked," Va Saren said, adding that a long-term commitment is needed to change this attitude.
Moreover, when the repatriation buses reach the border crossing point, the program provides free health checks and vaccinations because begging in the streets leaves many children with an array of diseases.
But this is often not enough for families dependent on the money.
Despite their eight-year-old son still being missing, Suon Krouch sent his daughter to Ho Cho Minh City together with a daughter-in-law.
"We now rely on the income that she can find for us," Suon Krouch said, adding that they were not afraid of losing their daughter because she went with a person they knew, unlike their son.
No consistent trend can be gathered from statistics on beggar trafficking.
The years 2002 and 2003 had the highest number of returnees from Vietnam, and though the numbers dipped briefly, 2007 saw a rise again.
Data has not yet been analysed for 2008.
Ly Chaat said he is confident after his three-year experience of begging as a child he would never want to beg again.
Last year, the IOM program helped him train to be a mechanic, and now they are helping him build a small repair shop in his home village in Svay Rieng.
"I feel more comfortable and free now that I have the skills to repair a motorbike," he said, adding that he would stay and help his younger siblings, and maybe start his own family one day.