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
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
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.
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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