Meas Oun (centre), 45, sits with two of her four children (front) in Poipet town on Friday. Meas Oun and her children earn a living by begging in Thailand. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post
Dice roll and cards are dealt every day in the seven casinos along the Poipet-Thai border, but just five kilometres away in the ramshackle village of Kbal Spean, gamblers of a different sort are playing for much higher stakes: betting their and their children’s lives as they struggle to eke out a meagre living as beggars in Thailand.
The more than 100 families waiting there to cross the border hail from all over the country, says villager Mean Veasna, 36, rattling off Kampong Thom, Kandal, Kampot and Kratie provinces as some of the more common origin points.
Most of his neighbours came to work as beggars across the border, he says.
But while the stakes are high, the payoff is low – about 50 baht (US$1.60) per day.
Crossing over illegally, the would-be beggars risk arrest and detainment by the Thai authorities.
And even if they make it safely across, they still have to walk hundreds of kilometres to the urban centres of Pattaya and Bangkok.
Sometimes, parents make seemingly unfathomable decisions to ensure their children’s ability to earn.
“There are many cases of children’s legs being broken,” says Mean Veasna. “They [parents] bring small children to be beggars and they inject their legs with medicine, before breaking them.
“This makes them [children] more pitiful, so they can beg a lot,” he adds.
Nita, 6, is asked to stand up and walk to demonstrate the point. Her right leg is crooked, and she hobbles lopsidedly for a short distance before sitting back down.
Her mother, Meas Oun, 45, says she allowed the procedure by a broker in the village in an attempt to help her daughter, but changed her mind about letting her leave when it came time for her to be taken to Thailand.
“I pitied my daughter. I would not sell my daughter to someone,” she says.
She moved to Poipet from Kandal province 20 years ago, and turned to begging after her husband left for another woman in Thailand.
“I am so poor as you can see from my house,” she says, gesturing towards a bare structure cobbled together from corrugated iron and wooden planks.
“I have no knowledge to work and no money to do any business, so I decided to beg in Thailand,” she says, breaking down in tears.
Across the border, in Thailand’s Rong Kluea market, Vong Srey Leap, 30, cradles her one-year-old baby close to her, as her six-year-old daughter peeks out shyly from behind.
“I’ve come here for more than 10 years,” she says. “I cross over at the illegal border … I walk in the market to beg with my daughter.”
Meas Oun, Vong Srey Leap and their children fit a common profile, according to research done last year by NGO Friends that found most Cambodian child beggars in Thailand are there with families or relatives.
There is also “rarely any element of coercion”, even for those who use facilitators.
This contrasts with commonly held assumptions that most of the children are human-trafficking victims controlled by organised gangs, the report notes.
Begging as a way of making a living is the norm for children in Poipet, agrees Long San Rithy, co-ordinator of the Dam Nok Toek rehabilitation centre.
Those who are not beggars are cart pullers or rubbish collectors.
However, he contends that the children are not truly begging of their own free will.
“Some of the children beg following their families or brokers, but in both cases, children are forced to be in labour. They are forced to earn money,” he says.
The definition of trafficking remains controversial, the Friends report notes.
The perception of a “trafficker”, or Me Kyhol, ranged from “someone who helps people earn money” to “a person who takes people to find jobs in Thailand” to “a person who leads the way, like the leader of a flock”.
But whether choosing to beg of their own accord or not, children who panhandle across the border find the career has a short shelf life.
At 19, Nov Sophan is considered past his prime.
His home village of Phsar Kandal in Poipet is eerily quiet for the late afternoon.
The sounds and activity of children running and playing are completely absent.
The children – aged 15 and below – are away, begging in Thailand, says Nov Sophan, but he no longer can follow them.
“Now I am older, I cannot beg anymore. I’ve changed to be a construction worker in Thailand,” he says.
To contact the reporters on this story: Sen David and Cassandra Yeap at firstname.lastname@example.org