In Ho Chi Minh City, the Khmer children seem to rise up out of the dust.
Rarely seen and never heard, they clutch potato sacks with a few slices of bread, drifting through the throngs, occasionally approaching a tourist and raising their fingers to their mouths, mutely asking for food or money.
In random interviews, Cambodians, mostly children, who creep across the border and come to stay on Ho Chi Minh’s streets, hoping to raise a few dollars to bring back home, have a common answer as to why they have come
“I’m poor,” Vi, 13, said, her sister Baroeun, 10, and brothers Anung, 9 and Bloeu, 5, gathered around her in a tight cluster. “My family has no land.”
No one knows how many children from Svay Rieng province pack themselves into the trunks of cars or have “facilitators” pay their way across the border for a later share of their begging, but authorities are sure their numbers are rising.
“Everybody is ashamed of it, but most people who go to Vietnam to beg consider it a second job,” International Organization for Migration program officer Cahan Kanha said.
The IOM is for the first time putting together a report on the trafficking of children to Vietnam for begging. It is due out later this year, Cahan Kanha said.
“This is a very new issue for us,” she said.
So new, in fact, that a picture of cross-border begging—the other side of trafficking in Southeast Asia—has yet to emerge. Authorities are sure traffickers are involved in it and their influence over the trade is growing, but the business also seems to hang on to the small-scale and informal.
The only sense of scale comes from Vietnamese government “repatriations,” which is hardly enough to go on, Cahan Kanha said. Often, Cambodian panhandlers escape or bribe their way out of arrests. Or the police don’t deport them. Or they simply just disappear into the grime of a Ho Chi Minh City that tourists never see, she said.
“They are threatened by the police and the Vietnamese gangs,” Cahan Kanha said.
Some children agreed.
“The police give us a lot of trouble,” said one boy who refused to give his name.
There are other hazards as well.
Cahan Kanha tells the story of a 13-year-old girl who had been back and forth to Ho Chi Minh City for years. She had not always come back with enough money to keep her traffickers happy. She had scars up and down her legs.
“When we touched her back, she became terrified and ran from the room,” Cahan Kanha said.
And then there are the sex tourists. On the night after their interview, Vi and her siblings were sitting at an outdoor cafe, eating their first hot meal in days, under the smiling eyes of two European men. When the men saw the children speaking in Khmer with a foreigner, they bolted.
For all of that, the children seemed oblivious.
“Mostly, the foreigners give us money,” Vi said, laughing as her little brother Bloeu slowly drifted off to sleep at the table.
For the panhandlers who successfully navigate the police, the pedophiles and the gangs to beg and go home, the reward is between $1 and $2 per day during their time in Vietnam, Cahan Kanha said.
Although the number of “repatriations” is declining, it’s not clear what that means. But it does not signal a decline in the number of cross-border beggars, Cahan Kanha said.
“Many of them spend most of their time in Vietnam. I think there are more and more people going to Vietnam,” she said.
Worldwide, more than 700,000 people are trafficked each year, according to UN statistics. Although most attention focuses on the sex trade, huge numbers of people are also sold into forced labor, which includes panhandling. This is especially true in Southeast Asia, where more than 200,000 people are trafficked every year, the UN reports.
The trafficking of beggars to and from Vietnam seems to center on Chantreah and Kompong Ro districts in Svay Rieng province, Cahan Kanha said.
Some Cambodian vagrants, like Vi and her siblings, make the trip once a year and make arrangements with “facilitators.”
In other cases, parents make the trip, too.
Sitting outside an antiques store in a tourist neighborhood of Ho Chi Minh City, Mahm, 37, was taking a break with her children—Map, 18, Tha, 19, Mohra, 12 and Chhup, 10. They had been in Vietnam for four days, with another 10 to go before they returned to their Chantreah district homes.
Her husband, a farmer, was home, waiting to take his rice to market. In the meantime, the family was hoping to raise a little extra cash in Vietnam, Mahm said.
“My kids need to go out to get the money. I’ve got too many of them,” she said.
Their visit hadn’t been working out as planned, Mahm said.
“Usually, people give us food. They don’t give us money. They say, go to the NGOs,” Mahm said.
That line comes up a lot, other children said in separate interviews.
“I’ve just heard about NGOs, but I’ve never seen them,” Vi said.
All of the street people interviewed said they slept on hammocks near markets late at night, when Cambodians cluster together for protection.
But that still leaves long hours with nowhere to go.
“During the day, we wander the streets,” Mahm said.
As she spoke, a group of Western backpackers passed by.
Mahm sprang upright and called out to her children.
“Barang, barang!” she said, using the Khmer word for white foreigners. “Get to work.”