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Preying on the vulnerable

Preying on the vulnerable

"CAMBODIA - the New Frontier". The catchphrase, cited from an Australian

pedophiles' newsletter, provides a graphic example of how Cambodia's destitute,

vulnerable children are viewed by some foreigners.

As child prostitution

in places like Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Philippines comes under increasing

scrutiny, pedophiles are believed to be turning to easier targets such as

Cambodia.

An abundance of poor, often homeless children, cheap

accommodation and a weak police and judicial system make the country ideal for

them.

"We suspect people are coming here because of crackdowns in other

Asian countries," says Tony Culnane of a World Vision street kid center near the

Central Market.

"It's only speculation, but it sounds reasonable and

logical."

Culnane and other NGO workers report a steady increase in the

number of pedophiles on Phnom Penh streets in the past few years.

There

are 10-12 pick-up places, well-known to child prostitutes and those looking for

them, where soliciting sex is done with surprising openness.

"It's

blatant here," says Culnane. "If that blatancy gets known, that it's easy to do

this here, it encourages more people to come here to do it."

But whether

a sophisticated network of pedophiles, exchanging information on how and where

to get sex with children, has developed in Cambodia is something NGOs are

cautious about.

"Child welfare groups in other countries like the

Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka say there are networks of pedophiles there.

Is there a network of people here? We don't know yet," says Culnane.

What

is known is that international pedophilia has grown increasingly organized.

Pedophiles form groups, such as the United States' BLAZE - Boy Lovers and

Zucchini Eaters - and exchange magazines, newsletters and

photographs.

The Internet computer system is reported to be their latest

method of communication, operating under code names often beginning with the

letters BL (Boy Lovers).

In Cambodia, pedophiles appear to have no

problem finding where to go to satisfy their appetite for children. Certain

guest-houses, hotels, nightclubs and public places such as parks are the points

of contact.

"To begin with, a pedophile goes out to find the kids at

certain places, but once he becomes known the kids wait outside his house or

hotel," says one NGO worker.

Many of the victims are homeless. Thousands

of kids live on Phnom Penh streets; many are believed to have sold themselves

for sex at some time.

"Almost all the boys, especially the older ones,

have slept with pedophiles", says one worker, who will not be named for fear of

jeopardizing his work.

Those who are entrenched in the sex trade, relying

on it for a living, are far fewer - but still more than 100.

Some live

"quite well" off the proceeds of their work and, surprisingly, not all were poor

to begin with.

Street kid prostitutes from "middle-class" backgrounds are

not uncommon, and do well. Chances are they have a smattering of conversational

English and are more outgoing than their poorer peers.

They may be simply

rebellious or feel unable to live at home because of family disputes -

step-mothers who refuse to accept their step-children are said to be one cause

of kids taking to the streets.

But poverty, homelessness and domestic

abuse are still the key paths to prostitution. The majority of those who fall

into the trap in Phnom Penh come from the provinces; some are

orphans.

They may have chosen to come to the capital to earn money, or

been sent by their families.

"The children are sometimes encouraged to

make money and their families may or may not know about how they do it," says

the worker.

For each sexual encounter, the children are paid anything

from 3000-10,000 riels, though it's more likely to be at the lower end of the

scale.

"Five thousand riels is good, plus whatever they can steal from

the foreigners," he says.

For those kids "lucky" enough to get taken to

live with a pedophile, there is also a roof over their heads, food and

gifts.

In some cases, the children have family approval.

"The

parents tend to think of the foreigners as nice people who adopt their children,

who look after them. They think they sleep with them only as fathers - they

don't know their child is doing fellatio or whatever."

Culnane says NGOs

have reported that streetkids are living with pedophiles but "we don't know

whether it's 100 or 10".

He says NGOs' observations show most street kids

involved in the sex trade are boys, though there are some girls, and that their

customers include Khmers as well as foreigners.

Condoms are not an issue

- the vast majority of pedophiles simply don't use them and the kids, even if

wise to the danger of Aids, are in no position to insist.

There is no

HIV/Aids testing of street kids. Some have been diagnosed with other

sexually-transmitted diseases and Culnane says it's "a matter of time" until

Aids hits the street kid population.

NGOs workers fear the repercussions.

They say that, as well as their customers, child prostitutes sleep with each

other - sex may be the only way they know to express affection - and the

potential for the spread of HIV is huge.

Whether it be boys selling

themselves on the streets or the more organized trafficking of girls to

brothels, children look set to continue to become increasing casualties of the

sex trade.

Pedophilia is just part of the wider prostitution business

undergoing a resurgence since the early 1990s, after the oppressive Khmer Rouge

and later communist rule.

"Many attribute the explosive growth of

prostitution and sex trafficking in Cambodia to the influx of more than 20,000

UNTAC personnel," according to a Human Rights Task Force report presented at a

recent seminar.

In 1991, as the Peace Accords which led to the UNTAC

election period, Phnom Penh was estimated to have 6000 prostitutes. A year

later, the number had risen to more than 20,000.

Since UNTAC's departure

in 1993, the number of prostitutes has fallen - but so too has their

ages.

Cambodian Women's Development Association surveys show most

prostitutes in October 1992 were aged 18 or over. Within six months, the minimum

age had fallen to 15.

A February 1994 survey found 35 per cent of Phnom

Penh sex workers were aged under 18. That was supported by the most recent

survey, by the Vigilance human rights group, three months ago.

That found

that about 31 per cent (1878 out of 6110) of sex workers in Phnom Penh and 11

provinces were aged under 17. The youngest were aged 12.

"The surveys do

not reflect the significant number of street children frequenting certain public

places where they are picked up for sex by pedophiles," says the Human Rights

Task Force report.

Culnane says NGOs have followed the growth in foreign

pedophiles on Phnom Penh's streets for the past two and a half years.

It

is not a "huge wave" but more of a steady increase which NGOs, the government,

courts and police are still struggling to come to terms with.

"It makes

me angry that affluent people come here just to exploit young children," says

Culnane.

"They're abusing the culture and hospitality of this country and

hurting the children emotionally and possibly physically.

"But we've

learned that anger doesn't help. We must keep going step by step

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