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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Poverty drives cross-border child trafficking

Poverty drives cross-border child trafficking

Housing at the resettlement area outside Poipet town in northwest Cambodia. Government and NGO workers say such conditions of extreme poverty drive the trade.

TIMGHE town of Poipet is as strange a place as any in Cambodia: the ragged road that

jolts you toward the border feels as though it hasn't been graded in years; a depressing

mixture of transience and dust, it functions more as a route into or out of Cambodia

than a settlement in its own right.

The cargoes that rumble through here are mixed too: agricultural produce, fuel, scrap

metal, and consumer goods high-piled on two-trailered beasts that batter the road

still further.

And at the border crossing the bridge is filled with people. Many are simply here

to beg. Disabled adults sit in the shade of the pillars, hands stretched out; children

walk by asking for money, some clutching tiny babies they have rented.

Wide-eyed backpackers cross into Cambodia, in the morning heading against the flow

of hundreds of Khmer day laborers going to the fields and markets of Thailand. In

Poipet there simply is no work available.

NGO workers say the town is the biggest child trafficking center in Cambodia, and

that this is a function of the area's bleak economy. Indications are that no child

is too young to be trafficked: infants have been recovered from begging rings operating

in the Thai capital and returned to Cambodia.

At risk: a child begging on the bridge at Poipet's border crossing.

Ten kilometers outside town is a resettlement area which is home to around 5,000

families. Most were for years refugees in camps along the Thai border. Among the

homes on small plots of demined land is a stilted hut that belongs to 38-year-old

Eang.

In an area known for its poverty, the home she shares with her second husband and

two small children is even more humble than the rest. A split bamboo floor runs up

against walls built of scavenged cement sacks and cardboard boxes. A single change

of clothes hangs from a pole.

Two years ago Eang sold her rice fields in Kampong Cham and came to Poipet having

heard life was easier in the border town. She is under no such illusions now - her

family is struggling to survive.

After the birth of her fourth child Eang ended up in debt to her neighbor's mother,

who had loaned her 1,000 baht (around $25). Eang was unable to repay the money, so

her neighbor approached her in August 2001 with a deal.

"They asked me to rent my children to them, and they would forgive my debt,"

she said. "I agreed to that because they promised to look after them."

Eang was told that her daughters, aged eight and ten, would be put to work selling

candy and flowers in Bangkok. Instead they ended up working in a begging ring in

the Thai resort town of Pattaya.

Her neighbor also promised she would get 3,000 baht a month. Instead she was given

only 1,200 baht up front, and was paid nothing more. When Eang heard her girls had

eventually been arrested by the Thai police and sent back to Cambodia, she sold her

small plot of land in Poipet to try and find them.

Begging at the Poipet border crossing with a 20-day-old baby.

So Lida.

"I could not find my children on my own, so I asked a local NGO to help,"

she says. Several months later she learned the older girl was at a care home in Poipet,

and the younger at a center in Battambang.

"The centers said that if I was able to feed my children, they would return

them to me," she says. "This is the first time I have done this, and I

swear I would never do so again."

However, the girls will not be returning home. Eang's husband, who is the girls'

stepfather, is violent and drinks too much. Sending them home would be too risky,

so the girls will grow up near their mother, but not with her.

NGO workers say Eang's story is typical: a mix of poverty, poor education and desperation,

as well as the use by traffickers of an intermediary known to the parents, often

a neighbor.

Parents generally have no idea where their children will end up - in a begging ring

or brothel - nor when they will see them again. Eang's daughters were lucky in that

neither was sold into sex work.

The Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC) in Phnom Penh says it is impossible to

know for certain how many children are being trafficked to Thailand and beyond. However,

says acting director Sun Sothy, unless the new anti-trafficking law is enforced,

the situation will get worse.

CWCC's figures show that between November 2001 and June 2002 more than 25,000 people

were repatriated from Thailand for illegally entering the country.

That figure includes adults and children involved in all forms of work, from brothels

to begging rings to laboring. The NGO is currently working to break down the statistics,

but Sothy says the real figures are certainly higher and are made worse by the country's

widespread poverty.

"Food shortage is a major problem," she says, adding that more effort is

required to warn people of the dangers involved.

A recent report by CWCC highlighted the particular problems with Cambodia's northwest,

specifically those areas formerly controlled by the Khmer Rouge. It rates those districts

as "high conflict areas where the enforcement of law and protection of women

is lacking".

"Trafficking of women and children are serious problems facing Cambodia in general

and its border provinces, especially Poipet town," the report states. "Many

of these migrants are young, trafficked into prostitution or forced labour, or forced

to work as beggars."

 

One hundred and twenty kilometers southwest in Battambang is a center for children

who have been returned by the Thai authorities from begging rings. The center is

run by the provincial department of social affairs (DoSA). There are two similar

centers in Poipet.

Fifteen-year-old Sokha is one of 40 children staying at the center. He lost his leg

to a landmine in his village in Banteay Meanchey eight years ago. He has been at

the center since the police sent him back from Bangkok two years ago.

The director says Sokha's pale color is due to leukaemia. Despite his broken arm,

he is learning to repair stereos and TVs. He dreams of a better life than the one

he has known.

Sokha left home aged 11 to avoid being beaten by his stepfather. A trafficker tricked

him into going to Bangkok, which became his home for the next two years.

"Life at home was very difficult - there was never enough food, and my stepfather

used to beat me with a bamboo stick and complain that I never worked, and that I

only ate food," he says.

"The trafficker told me there was a lot of work for me to do. He said I would

make more money than in Cambodia, so I followed him without telling my mother."

Once Sokha arrived in Bangkok he was coerced into joining a begging ring. He wanted

to go home, but the trafficker would not let him.

"I just kept on living there because I didn't know how to get home."

His working day was from 7 a.m. until midday, with a one hour rest. Then he was sent

back out again for a 12 hour shift until the following morning. A day without any

income earned him a beating; any money he did earn was taken from him.

On a good day he earned his boss 4,000 baht.

"I got a lot of money and the trafficker took all of it," he says. "When

I got hungry or needed something he would buy it for me. I did not know how to manage

money. I never told him a lie."

Other child beggars encouraged him to run away and save some money. Shortly afterwards

the police arrested him and returned him to Cambodia.

Children deemed to be at risk are fed and educated at Cambodian Vision in Development's center in Poipet.

So Lida, the director of the center, says she expects that the number of children

being trafficked will continue to climb. Around 40 percent of the children coming

through her center are repeat visitors - they have been deported from Thailand to

Battambang at least once before.

The children remain at the center for on average three months. During that time the

staff find out where they are originally from and assess whether it is appropriate

to return them to their families.

Sending the children back home is the priority, says Lida, but if the parents are

unable or unwilling to take them, they will be sent to an orphanage.

"If the family can provide them with food, education and a happy life, they

can have them back," says Lida. "However some children refuse to go home

because they are frightened of violence and abuse by their stepfathers. We leave

it up to the children to make the final decision."

Lida says it is virtually impossible to trace the families of some children. For

those who choose to go home, the staff arrange a special ceremony at which parents

thumb-print a document promising not to send their children away again. But there

are always more to take their place.

"I am very worried about this," says Lida. "Sick and disabled children

are a prime target of trafficking. Either the traffickers or their families tend

to take them to Thailand for begging or doing anything that will benefit them."

Felicity Rorke works for the International Organization for Migration, and is employed

at the center as an advisor. She says around 450 children with an average age of

between 8-12 have passed through here since September 2000.

Almost all the children were working in begging rings rather than brothels, but she

is concerned the most vulnerable are not being found. She says most are from the

northwest.

"Eighty-five percent of the children repatriated through our program are coming

from Banteay Meanchey province, and most of those from the Poipet area," she

says. "Poipet is an area that is full of very transient families. There are

not a lot of services there, and not a lot of support."

All of which, she says, means parents need to travel to Thailand for work. She says

the numbers of children being trafficked are likely to increase, helped not least

by the country's current problems of flooding and drought.

"I don't think the evidence says it is getting any better - our numbers certainly

aren't decreasing," she says. "Our biggest problem is actually finding

places for kids at longer-term centers.

"There's a whole range of kids who are sitting in Thailand waiting to get repatriated.

Most organizations talk about the problem getting worse - poverty tends to be getting

more acute [and that] means more and more kids will be rented out by families who

are desperate and don't have any other options."

One group that is providing options is Cambodian Vision in Development (CVD), a local

NGO that operates social projects in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey.

Executive director Mounh Sarath says CVD decided last year to open a day care center

to look after children at risk. All are from the resettlement site outside Poipet.

With funding from UNICEF, the center opened in February this year and looks after

140 children.

Children who attend the center get a basic education, one meal a day and the benefit

of not being left alone while their parents are away begging on the border or working

as day laborers in Thailand.

Improving the living standards of the parents is key says Sarath, and CVD works with

them to ensure they are able to earn enough to survive. The small size of family

plots at the resettlement site means it is almost impossible for them to earn a living

from farming the land.

In CVD's compound, which unlike much of the area has been properly demined, one group

of children listens to a story, another group practices basic literacy, while a third

does arithmetic.

 

 

CVD's Mounh Sarath.

"These children don't have any other place to go," says Sarath. "Their

families go to beg at the Thai border and leave them behind. They don't have anything

to eat, and could be at risk of being trafficked as they don't have anybody looking

after them."

Their parents often cross the border to work at the Thai markets. Those lucky enough

to find work can earn between $1-1.50 a day, while those who can't go hungry.

It is part of Eang's dismal luck that her shack falls outside the catchment area

for CVD's project. That means her youngest daughter and her one-year-old son are

ineligible for the center, although they are clearly at risk.

The fact of the matter is that there are not enough projects to educate and to alleviate

poverty in the area. Until that changes Cambodia's children will continue to be trafficked

across the bridge at Poipet for a miserable life in the begging rings or brothels

of Thailand.

 

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