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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 14:28 GMT
Cambodia's trade in children
Boy pulling a cart
Each child is worth up to $200 for a trafficker
By Simon Ingram in Cambodia

It was the simple lure of money that almost led 17-year old Khuon Yam into a life of prostitution and exploitation.

For years, she had longed for an escape from the ill-paid drudgery of her work in the bustling fish market of Aranyapratet, on Thailand's eastern border with Cambodia.

Khuon Yam working at the fish market
Khuon Yam managed to escape being sold
Every day, she leaves her home in the slums on the Cambodian side of the border and - like thousands of other day labourers - crosses to the huge, squalid fish market on the other side.

Here, children as young as 12 squat in puddles of dank water, using a spoon to scrape the flesh from piles of little silver river-fish. The children are paid a few cents for each kilogram of fish they collect; few earn more than $1 a day.

So when a well-dressed Thai woman approached her with an offer of a proper job, Khuon Yam barely hesitated.

"She said I could work as a waitress in a restaurant in Thailand. She even promised me a month's pay in advance," Khuon Yam said.

She and three friends left with the woman the next day.

Thai orders

But the woman's promises were fake. In reality, she was a trafficker, recruiting young girls for work in Thailand's huge sex industry.

It's very easy for them to fall into the clutches of the traffickers

Soam Sophin, senior Cambodian police official
Khuon Yam realised she had been duped when she discovered she was about to be sold to another broker. She managed to escape from a house where she had been taken, and fled back home to Cambodia.

Her friends were rescued by police some days later.

Such cases are all too common. The senior police officer responsible for the Cambodian side of the border, Deputy Commissioner Soam Sophin, says the traffickers recruit young girls according to instructions received from brothels and massage parlours in Thailand.

Social worker talking to young boy
Social workers are trying to help the children
Every child they recruit is worth up to $200 - a big sum of money in these border communities.

If the children are very young, they will often end up working as beggars on the streets of Bangkok or other large Thai towns.

"These cases are increasing all the time," says the Commissioner. "It happens because the victims come from very poor families, and it's very easy for them to fall into the clutches of the traffickers."

A few traffickers have been arrested, but the full rigour of the law - providing for prison terms of up to 20 years - is rarely applied.

No education

Ironically, the border zone - an area which saw regular military conflict while the Khmer Rouge rebel group was still active - is enjoying something of an economic boom.

The return of peace, following a ceasefire in 1998, has allowed trade and tourism between Thailand and Cambodia to flourish. Tens of thousands of unskilled, landless Cambodians have returned to the area, desperate for jobs.

In some cases, the children are hired by their own parents to the traffickers

Chivit Ratana, social worker
Those youngsters who do not work in the fish and other markers end up working as porters, lugging heavily-laden carts of goods back and forth across the border.

A regional child protection officer for the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), Alexandre Pinon, says the region's large, unskilled population provides the perfect hunting ground for child traffickers.

"The children are not attending schools, so they have to work at the border or [find jobs] in Thailand with the parents," she says.

"There is nobody to take care of them, so it's very easy for the trafficker to come here to look for children and bring them to beg in Bangkok, for example or in Pattaya."

Sometimes the children's parents make the traffickers' work even easier. We found 10-year old Seang Ang and her two younger brothers, living alone in a border resettlement village.

The children's mother went away six months ago to find work, leaving them in the care of a neighbour who only visits them every few days to bring food.

Government crackdown

According to one social worker, destitute children like this promise even bigger financial rewards for the traffickers.

"In some cases, the children are hired by their own parents to the traffickers, so it means the trafficker has to pay money [to recruit them]," says Chivit Ratana.

"But in cases like this, the trafficker doesn't have to pay anything, because the parents are not around.

"So it means a bigger profit for the traffickers."

As a first step towards halting the trade in children, the Cambodian Government has given its backing to a community-based network of volunteer social workers, teachers and others whose job is to identify children at risk, and to rescue and protect those who are already victims.

Aid workers acknowledge that the scheme - started in cooperation with Unicef in 1999 - is only part of the answer to the problem.

Back at the crowded border post, Khuon Yam is returning from another exhausting day's work in the fish market. In spite of her frightening brush with the child-traffickers, she still hopes one day to find proper work in Thailand.

"I never stop dreaming about finding a decent job," she says. "And work in Thailand means more money."

See also:

15 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Asia's child sex victims ignored
17 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Cambodia deports 'sex slaves'
22 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Asia's child sex tourism rising
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