Sopheap has been groomed for sex since he was eight years old. For the last five
years, his parents have received money, land, a new home, and numerous family holidays
from a sinister benefactor who asked only one thing in return: to sexually abuse
Belgian national Philippe Dessart, 47, initially began supporting Sopheap - now 13
- through a local NGO before cultivating a private relationship with the child's
family. Dessart's arrest on April 8 in Phnom Penh by the government's Anti-Trafficking
and Juvenile Protection Unit - acting on a tip from Action Pour les Enfants (APLE)
- finally released Sopheap from his nightmare of sexual abuse.
But, as law enforcement improves in the capital, foreign pedophiles are relocating
to the provinces where police are less proactive about pedophilia, said Katherine
Keane, Sihanoukville project officer for Action Pour les Enfants.
"Over the last 12 to 18 months we have seen less child sex abuse in Phnom Penh
and more in the provinces," said Keane. "In rural areas there is no monitoring
Huge progress has been made in Phnom Penh in both prosecuting and preventing foreign
pedophilia, according to Keo Thea, deputy chief of the Phnom Penh municipality's
Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection office.
"The police at my office are very closely observing the pedophile issue and
now as a result foreigners are afraid to commit child sex crimes [in Phnom Penh],"
According to Keane, the situation outside Phnom Penh is a different story. The April
10 arrest of German national Alexander Watrin, 36, in Sihanoukville, illustrates
the discrepancy, she said.
"The way both cases have been handled so far has been different. Things take
far longer [in Sihanoukville]; in Phnom Penh they are able to act quickly."
Foreign pedophilia represents only a small percentage of overall child sex offenses
in Cambodia. According to Ministry of Interior 2005 statistics there were 665 reported
cases of child sex offences, resulting in 280 investigations with 397 offenders arrested.
Only a little more than 1 percent of these child sex offenders were foreign nationals,
compared with 3 percent in 2004.
Prosecuting a foreign national in Cambodia is more of a problem for authorities than
prosecuting a Cambodian, says Naly Pilorge, director of human rights NGO LICADHO.
"Police are hesitant and cautious about the prosecution of foreigners since
they are high profile," she said.
Keane claims that police in Sihanoukville are more hesitant about making arrests
when the accused is a foreign national.
"It is very hard dealing with foreigners," she said. "[The police]
are nervous of the consequences of arresting and prosecuting - there can be a huge
political fallout if they get it wrong."
In Phnom Penh police have overcome such barriers and are now adept at identifying
and gathering evidence against foreign pedophiles, said Keo Thea.
"We follow [suspected pedophiles] secretly by pretending to be a motodop - so
the foreigners will not know they are watched by police," he said. "Then,
if they commit sex crimes with children, the police are already monitoring the situation
and will catch them."
The police force is also working with tourism officials to ensure child abusers are
"We have built good cooperation with guesthouse and hotel owners. They no longer
allow foreigners to stay in the guest house or hotel with young people," said
In addition to leaving Phnom Penh, foreign pedophiles have evolved alternative methods
of accessing children in response to police improvements.
"It is more of a trend now to see long-term residents move to Sihanoukville,
provide financial support to the child and family, even provide schooling,"
"Travelling sex offenders are using provincial orphanages and shelters as part
of their 'grooming techniques' to gain access to children, for example, by offering
to sponsor a child - there are often no background checks in place."
The abject poverty pervasive across much of rural Cambodia is exploited by comparatively
wealthy foreign nationals seeking to sexually abuse children and evade prosecution,
Keane said. Elaborate networks of support - such as that built between Dessart and
Sopheap's family - are carefully constructed.
"Some [foreign pedophiles] target street children, but we have some victims
who do have families; in some situations the families will be actively encouraging
the child to develop and continue the sexually abusive relationship," said Keane.
"These children and families know where the money is coming from and are often
reluctant to provide evidence of abuse if it will jeopardize that financial relationship."
In addition to co-opting the victim's family, a facade of "support" serves
to disguise the true nature of the relationship from under-resourced and inadequately
trained provincial police forces.
"The police don't have the capacity to identify long-term, settled-in abusers,"
said Keane. "In Sihanoukville they are not trained and lack the education and