Lem Samuth sits a couple of hundred meters from the Thai border in a small room on
the ground floor of a Poipet row house. It's early morning, and he is surrounded
by nearly 30 children. Some play with toys, while others swat at a shuttlecock with
badminton rackets. A handful of kids are curled up fast asleep on the floor, impervious
to the bustle around them.
Children at the Goutte D'eau's drop-in center in Poipet find a safe haven from child-trafficking rings.
The peaceful scene stands in stark contrast to the harsh, and often tragic, experiences
that brought these children to Poipet.
Samuth, 33, is a teacher in the Goutte D'eau drop-in center in central Poipet, a
safe haven for young victims of child-trafficking rings. Many of the children he
encounters were smuggled from Cambodia into Thailand, where they were forced into
begging or prostitution. When Thai police periodically bust Cambodian child-traffickers
in Thailand, they round up the children and take them back across the border and
out of Thai jurisdiction. Often they wind up depositing the children back into the
hands of the same smugglers.
But some escape that fate, and instead find themselves alone on the streets of Poipet.
For the past five years a local NGO, Goutte D'eau, has cared for nearly 300 of these
children, aged four to 15, every day at its two facilities. Sumuth said he is fulfilled
by his work at Goutte D'eau, though it isn't always easy. Street life has taken a
toll on the children; many struggle with substance abuse, and past traumas have left
a psychological imprint on nearly all of them.
"The good thing about my job is that I'm able to help children with an education
and get them off the streets," he said. "The bad thing is that nobody respects
the Cambodian law, especially our government officials. It can also be difficult
when the children are drunk, high on drugs, when they act violent and don't listen
to what you are saying; when they carry knives and threaten you," Samuth said.
Open all day, seven days a week, Goutte D'eau's drop-in center employs nine staff
members. Safety is paramount for Samuth and his colleagues, and they work hard to
keep the peace inside the center. Kids must undergo checks for drugs and weapons
before entering the building.
Samuth said that Goutte D'eau's staff cannot count on help from the local authorities
in the event of a fight within the center, for example. Police corruption has made
it difficult for Samuth and his colleagues to do their jobs.
"The children make a lot of money stealing and the police are always in on it,"
said Sokh Saipath, 29, another social worker at the drop-in center. "They are
working together with the street children, sharing the profits of the thefts."
Several kilometers away from the drop-in center, Poipet's Wat Thmey is home to Goutte
D'eau's sister program in Poipet. At Wat Thmey, Goutte D'eau established a rehabilitation
center for traumatized children, including those from the drop-in center. There,
staff members provide day care and education services, and they try to connect kids
with their families.
"The number one priority is to get the kids back with their families,"
said technical adviser Jeroen Bart Carrin. He gestures towards another dozen children
who are rehearsing their dance routines on the monastery's grounds. "But with
these guys there is almost no chance of that happening," he said, adding that
many of the kids have no memory of their family members.
The victims of child trafficking are brought to Wat Thmey either by the International
Organization for Migration or they are dropped off across the border by Thai police.
Most of the children stay there for six months and are then moved to a long-term
shelter if their families have not been located. Even when children's families are
found, officials must carefully consider whether the child would benefit from being
reunited with them.
Carrin explained that newcomers to the center at Wat Thmey often bring with them
serious drug addictions. Glue, amphetamines and yama are the drugs of choice on the
streets of Poipet.
"Most of [the kids] sleep for three days straight when they first get here,"
said Carrin, adding that the absence of drugs is a shock to many of the kids' systems.
Back at the drop-in center, Lem Samuth smiles as he watches the childen play. He
says the good aspects of his job are rewarding.
"Get them off the streets and give them a little bit of education. It's not
much, but it's a start."