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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Poipet street kids: far worse off than expected

Poipet street kids: far worse off than expected

Poipet-A new survey on street kids living in this bustling, border town shocked social

workers who say they didn't expect to see so many children living in deplorable conditions

and so few attending school.

Yann Grandin, an advisor with the NGO Goutte d'Eau (GE) which conducted the survey

of 210 children living on both the Thai and Cambodian side of the border, said the

information gathered was in line with information they had about children he had

worked with, but previously the results were considered to be the worst case scenario.

It was the high percentages of child victims that came as a surprise, said Grandin,

who has worked in Poipet for three years.

"I had not expected that almost the entire target group would have to face such

hazardous living conditions," he said.

Thirty percent of the children interviewed said they regularly slept on the streets.

The most common reasons they gave were fear of returning home, lack of earnings to

turn over to their parents, domestic violence or simply that they preferred to stay

on the street with siblings or friends.

The dusty town of Poipet, home to an estimated 70,000 people, has seen incredible

growth since the opening of its first casino in 1999. Back then the population was

just 5,000.

Thousands of Thais cross the border daily to gamble and the industry is thriving

with nine casinos. Imports, both legal and illegal, are carted across the border

by hundreds of cart pullers in an unending stream. Popular markets on both sides

of the border attract shoppers from around the region.

The border crossing is also becoming more popular for tourists as roads to Siem Reap

slowly improve. All this activity gives poor provincial families the impression that

Poipet's bustling streets may offer them jobs.

But most of the population lives in poverty, and people often are caught up in the

cycle of illegal immigration and deportation as they try for work in Thailand.

"This extremely unstable scenario makes the families concentrate all their efforts

on daily survival, with no expectations or plans for the future," Grandin said.

"Therefore, the children are part of the daily survival plan, having to work

or beg to support the family and making it impossible to go to school."

Of those street kids who had homes, 89 percent lived in one-room plastic shacks.

The sanitary conditions in the homes were inadequate, particularly in the rainy season.

The survey revealed that 75 percent of those interviewed had either dropped out or

never attended school. Of those who had attended, fewer than 20 percent had progressed

beyond grade 3.

Most of the children were under age 15. Half reported they worked all day everyday,

most commonly scavenging and begging. Many worked as street sellers or cart pullers,

transporting the flow of Thai imports across the border. Only a few children described

theft or smuggling as their main form of income.

Daily wages ranged from 20 to 200 baht, or about 50 cents to $6.

Most of the girls earned a living by carrying umbrellas to shelter tourists from

sun or rain while waiting at immigration. That job was of particular concern to social

workers who say that kind of close contact with wealthy adults can lead to prostitution.

"Umbrella girls have admitted to our social workers that they sometimes have

sexual relations for money," Grandin said.

"Two months ago we had two girls who disappeared for a few days from one of

our two daycare centers. Parents believed that they were staying on the Thai side."

"Both of them came back after a few days, saying that they managed to escape

from a brothel where they were forced to work as waitresses."

Grandin said he also received information that some umbrella girls were forced to

work as prostitutes in the Thai market.

Only 20 percent of those interviewed were natives of Poipet. The rest were from a

variety of poverty stricken families who moved there to find work.

Bangkok survey

Well beyond the border the story is similar for the estimated 1,000 Khmer children

begging and selling in the streets of Bangkok.

A survey of these street workers conducted in Bangkok last year by Friends International

challenged previous assumptions of child trafficking rings when 80 percent of those

interviewed said they were bought to Thailand by a parent or relative.

In an interview at the GE center in Phnom Penh, 15- year- old Panha (not his real

name) described his life as a beggar in Poipet before he was scooped up by GE, and

brought to Phnom Penh to attend a special school for the handicapped.

He said he was very young when his parents took him to Thailand. Crippled by polio,

he worked everyday begging and selling flowers in Bangkok until he was arrested by

police and deported alone to Poipet about a year ago.

Social workers believe his mother was a child trafficker. He described many other

Khmer children being brought to Thailand by his mother to sell and beg along with

him. Each night they would turn over all their earnings to his mother.

Workers from the Poipet Transit Center, a government run assistance center for women

and children deported across the Thai border, said that five to ten trucks arrive

at Poipet border crossing every day carrying Khmer deportees, many of them children

arrested for begging alone on the street.

Glue sniffing

The Poipet survey completed last month found 26 of the 210 children interviewed admitted

to taking drugs. But those who conducted the survey said that may not be an accurate

portrayal of the drug use problem.

Panha said he picked up glue sniffing while he existed on money from begging around

the border casinos. He joined a drug rehabilitation program at GE which later brought

him to Phnom Penh.

"Many children denied consuming drugs although they have been seen by GE social

workers taking drugs many times before," said Beatrice Muller, a Swiss volunteer

who coordinated the survey.

However when asked if they knew of any drugs used on the streets of Poipet, most

of the children admitted they were familiar particularly with glue sniffing and the

meth- amphetamine known locally as yama. More than half admitted their friends or

relatives use drugs regularly.

Grandin said as a result of the survey GE will extend its drug awareness program

in Poipet.

He said the biggest challenge in Poipet is dealing with such a significant number

of poor and extremely unstable families in one place, which makes stabilizing the

children's situation very difficult.

GE plans to repeat the survey each year to assist itself and other NGOs working in

the area.



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