Sweeping the Street Kids

Young Glue-Sniffers Are Being Arrested, Sent to Rehabilitation

Seen as a nuisance for author­ities and easy prey for Phnom Penh’s self-styled “Bong Thom” gangs and predatory pedophiles, the city’s street children find their daily hardships a lot easier to   handle when they’re high. 

One inhale of the cheapest   rubber compound glue smeared on the inside of a little plastic bag, and they forget the begging, the hunger, the broken homes.

And this, child advocates say, could be just the beginning.

Not only can glue-sniffing lead street kids to other, harder drugs, but now it can land them in government detention centers for three months. While city officials hope this tactic will curb the use of drugs on the streets, critics say the approach is merely a short-term fix.

As Cambodia’s economy im­proves, so does the availability of drugs to people of all sectors of society.

But it’s the street kids, with their tell-tale bags of glue stumbling along Phnom Penh’s boulevards, who suffer the worst consequences, advocates say.


Sitting in their new children’s center near the National Museum, Mith Samlanh/ Friends Coordinator Sebastien Marot and Technical Advisor Lyn Mayson recall a recent drug-outreach meeting.

Children gathered around the outreach team to talk but then quickly dispersed and disappeared when a glue dealer turned up.

“He had all the business,” Mayson recalls. “Some of them bought little bags…Then the    children and the seller came back to where we were.”

The problem with officials, she says, is that identifying such    subtle distinctions between user and seller—or offering sensible alternatives to glue-sniffing—are not among their priorities.

Instead, as of June 7, all district police officers in the city have been ordered to arrest and detain children found sniffing glue.

The city’s police force has been ordered to capture and turn the children over to the Ministry of Social Affairs and to NGOs, according to Phnom Penh’s      former judicial police chief, Lek Vannak.

Short of banning the sale of glue, Lek Vannak maintained, there is nothing else police can do to stop glue sniffing.

“We don’t have training to teach them not to use glue or to rehabilitate them. All we can do is pass them on,” he says.

Two months into the crackdown, 73 boys and six girls, all reputed glue sniffers and all under the age of 17, have been arrested in Phnom Penh, says Chea Sarn, who heads the municipal social affairs office.

The majority of them have been sent to the Chom Chao Youth Rehabilitation Center near Pochentong Air­port, where child­ren are held for three months and put through anti-drug classes. In addition, children go through a form of detoxification while they are kept away from all substances.

But when the children are released, experts warn, many go back to their life on the streets where the lure of glue is still there.

The failure of such “detox” programs was outlined in a recent report and distributed at a UN drug control program in Phnom Penh. In it, experts lament the fact that inhalant abuse continues at endemic levels in the region, but it noted that “mandatory lockup without ancillary service responses has limited effect.”

Moreover, human rights workers have expressed concern that children are being detained without ample legal documentation. Before last August, they note, Cambodia’s laws required authorities to have a sentence from a judge or at least a court order before a child could be detained.

Now children—even the very young—can be sent to a detention center without a court’s discretion, rights workers warn.

Marot says this approach will not likely bring children to that final decision to stop using drugs for good.

“We sill have something like 900 kids on the streets,” he says. “Putting them in a center and hoping the kids will not sniff glue [when they get out] is a waste of money and a waste of time.”


A large grass- and tree-covered compound, the Chom Chao Youth Re­hab­­ilitation Center provides a temporary home for suspected glue sniffers once they are taken from the streets.

“At the beginning they don’t want to live here,” says Saing Neou, the center‘s director. “Later, they like the food, the good environment, the sport and education.”

He defends the center’s ability to help children and says it is not such a bad place to live for a few months.

“In 1995 this area was like a prison. There were military police guarding the children. Now that has changed. We have only civilians working here,” Saing Neou says.

The center holds 55 alleged glue sniffers who have been detained by police and 37 teen-age boys living there voluntarily.

Sitting in a classroom at the center this week, 12-year-old Map Ny from Battambang province is smaller and slightly chubbier than the other boys .

After he lived alone on the streets of Phnom Penh for more than one year, he was picked up by police two months ago for sniffing glue and brought to the center .

He says he now knows glue is bad. But with no home to go to, he says he wants to stay at Chom Chao rather than go back to the streets—and to glue.

“Glue makes your head brok­en,” Map Ny says.

Seng Vutha, however, is on his second stint at Chom Chao.

He says he is one of the center’s regulars who have been through the center’s detox prog­ram but ended up back on the streets, back on glue and event­ually back in detention.

Around half of the detainees are old hands like Seng Vutha.

“When they are released they have no money, so they begin to walk back to Phnom Penh,” the 14-year-old explains. “On the way they start to beg. With the money from begging they sniff glue.”

Center Director Saing Neou admits many children return to glue-sniffing when they hit the streets again. But he says the  center also works to train children in a vocation before they leave.

“We have the ability to help the children,” he says. “We can’t send them to high school or university but we train them in our workshops.”


Chan Sokunthea, adviser to Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, also admits that sweeping glue sniffers off the streets and into brief detention terms will not address the larger problems. Part of the challenge, he complains, is a lack of funds to implement long-term solutions.

The biggest concern is how the drug problem will spread, experts agree.

As the use of hard drugs increases in neighboring countries, the same trends are taking hold in Cambodia.

After all, glue sniffing arrived from Thailand, says Marot of Mith Samlanh/Friends.

Cambodian children working in Thailand would get high on the toxic glue to deal with the overwork, the hunger and frequent abuse meted out in the tough world of migrant workers.

Hundreds of glue-addicted children served as human pack animals at border crossings in the Thai-Cambodia border town of Poipet by the early 1990s, Marot says.

“They feel drunk after sniffing glue. They feel good, they hallucinate, they stop feeling hungry and they do not worry about finding food. It take away their worries,” Mayson says.

Now, the risk for street children is how glue will serve as a gateway to other drugs.

As in Thailand, Cambodia’s migrant workers are turning to amphetamine-type substances such as yaba and yama, Mayson said.

Heroin, methamphetamines and prescription drugs also are more readily available in Cambodia, as is what is known as “black opium,” or water left over from opium smoking. Some drug cocktails are even provided as mixers at some of Phnom Penh’s drink shops, Mayson and Marot say.

A recent survey by the center showed an increase from last year in glue and other drug use among street children and those living in squatter areas of Phnom Penh.

The survey said 10 boys and one girl under 8 years old said they sniffed glue. Another 185 children aged 9-15 reported glue sniffing. And seven boys and girls in the 12-15 age group reported using methamphetamines.

What the report didn’t include are the increasingly more well-off children who are turning to drugs—a sector the experts say also will be cause for concern.

With Thailand tightening its internal routes to counter drug trafficking out of Burma, Cambodia is left wide open, law enforcement and UN authorities say.

Marot says officials should not only look to street children but also to upper- and middle-class kids as drugs become more widespread.

“Pointing at street kids helps the government in [laying] blame…. Street kids are just the tip of the iceberg. But it’s the tip that is easy to see…. The real issue with drugs goes far beyond,” he says.

Marot likens Cambodia’s looming drug problem to the swift spread of HIV/AIDS cases in the early 1990s.

“We are the beginning of a major explosion,” he says.

If this explosion is to be dealt with, he says, the government must deal with drugs more comprehensively. Arresting glue sniffers to get them off the street is merely cosmetic, he argues.

“They have plans to clean up the city every other month…They clean up the street kids, they clean up the drug users, they clean up the [homeless people], but the real clean up doesn’t happen.”


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