poipet, Banteay Meanchey province – Like any good recruiter, Chan Nang’s new master painted a rosy picture for his mother the day she visited their squalid home here. World experience in Bangkok for the 12-year-old boy and money to follow, she promised. Chan Nang’s mother agreed to sell him.
Once in Bangkok, money to sniff glue was the boy’s reward for a good day of begging and stealing. The beatings with big sticks on bad days were what eventually drove him to run to police.
‘‘Sometimes I could satisfy the woman,’’ Chan Nang said, suddenly lifting the back of his filthy, red shirt to reveal two deeply-etched scars. “But very often I was seriously beaten up because I made less than 1,000 baht [$25] a day.”
Hundreds of children like Chan Nang are smuggled across the border to be beggars every year, NGO workers say. Many child traffickers operate from Poipet, which has gained a name for itself in recent years as a capitol of sorts for Cambodia’s lucrative trade in young beggars.
Even two years after the opening of a legal crossing to Thailand here, children remain a leading export in this filthy border town. Between 450 and 600 children are repatriated by Bangkok police to Poipet every month—between 5,400 and 7,200 a year. A large percentage of those are believed to have been trafficked.
Dropped at the Cambodian border and released into muddy streets teaming with carts headed for Thailand, many are simply picked up by traffickers and sold to begging rings again, NGO workers say.
Chan Nang has managed to avoid being trucked back to Thailand. He convinced his mother it would be better if he spent his days on the bridge that separates Thai and Cambodian checkpoints. He collects riel notes for helping to carry goods across the border. Many others are not so lucky.
And NGO workers who deal every day with the problem can easily recite a litany of horror stories.
Some traffickers inject children with drugs to cause their arms or legs to shrivel up: Handicapped children make more money from pitying foreigners. Some pair children as young as 9 months old with impoverished, decrepit elderly ladies, to appeal to Western tourists. Skinnier children are more effective, so instead of food to keep them healthy, young beggars and pickpockets are fed a diet of amphetamines.
Chea Chham, the local representative for the French NGO Krousar Thmei, runs a village for 20 families, with 99 children, vulnerable or already targeted by traffickers.
Five hundred children passed through Poipet last year en route to Krousar Thmei safe houses located hundreds of kilometers from Poipet, he said.
But some of those children never made it: Three times last year traffickers showed up with guns and stole children back, he said. Other times children “sneak back out at night.”
“Sometimes they want to go back because their family is poor and they believe they can make some money,” Chea Chham said. “Authorities here have no power at all. And they will not do anything.”
Local NGOs have identified 20 suspected traffickers in Poipet alone. They know where the traffickers live, and some details of how they operate, NGO workers say. But trafficking is a lucrative business: children fetch an average of about 20,000 Thai baht ($540) when sold by traffickers across the border.
Poipet is an anarchic and squalid boomtown. Powerful allies can be easily found and purchased here to protect unscrupulous activities, most agree.
In what many consider a watershed case, a Vietnamese woman was sentenced to 15 years in prison recently for selling her 14-year-old daughter into prostitution—the first known case of such a stiff penalty in Cambodia.
Several aid workers mentioned that case and expressed hope that authorities are waking up to the horrific lives of poor children. NGOs are still waiting for a crackdown on traffickers of child beggars—and also wonder how much of the sentence the mother will serve.
Just last month, for instance, a suspected trafficker was arrested in Poipet with two 7-year-old children, Srei Moa and Srei Touch. But an associate who identified himself as a market vender sent a letter to the district police chief asking that the two children be released.
“I know these girls and their family clearly,” he wrote in a letter viewed by The Cambodia Daily. “Both children just came to visit me. I would like to guarantee that I will take these two children back to my house. I promise when the mother of both children comes to visit, she will bring them back home.”
Police released both the trafficking suspect and the two girls. NGO workers have vowed to monitor the situation, placing employees outside the house of “the market seller,” Som San, for surveillance.
Provincial officials acknowledge child trafficking is a major problem. Chhoeung Sokhom, deputy police chief for justice affairs for Banteay Meanchey province, said many children return to Poipet from Thailand addicted to sniffing glue.
But he said it is virtually impossible to stop the child trafficking because there are so many illegal border crossings, and so much cross-border traffic.
“About 15 percent of the population enters and leaves Thailand illegally and we cannot say they are doing so for bad reasons,” Chhoeung Sokhom said. “We cannot control them because they go by uncontrolled border gates. If they go through controlled checkpoints, it’s difficult to determine if they are simply going to Thailand for the afternoon, or for a long time.”
Thach Khorn, governor of Banteay Meanchey province, said Poipet’s swelling population in recent years is part of the problem.
That, combined with petty squabbles amongst officials over bribes has created a chaotic situation at the border that makes regulation of any kind difficult.
But the corruption or apathy of local officials is often not the main problem. Rather it is the destitution and desperation of families themselves that enable predominantly Thai and Vietnamese-run rings to exploit Cambodian children, most agree.
Reth Veasna, a reedy 16-year-old with sun-bleached hair, estimates he has been sent to Bangkok about 10 times, though he has found refuge in a shelter for trafficked children run by the French NGO Goutte d’eau.
His masters fed him amphetamines ‘‘to take because it can make me beg and steal without being tired.” But he returned voluntarily after deportation several times anyway, because “my father is always drunk and he beat me.”
“One women first approached me in the dark as I was hanging out on the Poipet bridge and persuaded me to go,” he said. “I wanted to know what Bangkok was like….They sold me like an animal. Now I realize it’s very bad, and I would like to appeal to other children not to get cheated by human traffickers and used as a beggar in any place. You sometimes face danger and death because Thai police are barbarians.”
Christophe Jakob, coordinator of Goutte d’eau in Poipet, has seen a lot in the last two years. An average of one body a day is cremated at the wat across the street from the shelter, a testament to poor health of the slum dwellers who live in an area that has no sewage, according to one coworker.
“Terrible things happen here,” Jakob said, pointing to a spot down the road where three neighborhood children were killed last year by a land mine.
“There are a lot of things worse than selling a child here. Life is very cheap. There is no real doctor here, no health care. People get ill and die. They survive on a daily basis. There is no food.”
“For the people here, it’s absolutely normal to go to sell your child, to rent your child. There’s no consciousness that doing that is bad because of the history of Cambodia.”
Two years ago, it was still Khmer Rouge.
Says Governor Thach Khorn: “It is poverty that makes children abused from outer levels. First we must solve the poverty problem in order to solve the deprived children experiencing all kinds of abuse….But we are working with NGOs and looking for help. The government cannot stop this problem, because the government has budget shortages.”
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