Earlier this week, police in Cambodia arrested 39-year-old Pech Tho as she tried to cross the border into Thailand with a one-month old baby boy. The problem? The boy wasn't hers. She had bought it from the baby's parents promising to pay $50 as soon as she sold the baby in Thailand. The transaction was already set up. She was to hand over the living merchandise to 34-year-old Danh Dara who would then smuggle the baby onward into Malaysia.
The baby's parents have also since been charged. They said they couldn't afford to keep their child and hoped that by selling him he would be given a better life somewhere else. "The court had to charge the parents too, otherwise other poor parents will have the same excuse, which we cannot accept," Meng Say, Phnom Penh's anti-human trafficking police chief, told the news agency Reuters.
The parents' horrifying decision to sell their one-month old is one that many couples in Cambodia reach. Most regret doing so as soon as they realize the consequences but in a landscape of abject poverty like this Southeast Asian country, many feel that selling their own flesh and blood is the only way to make ends meet. After decades of civil war and mass killings by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s, Cambodia today is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Per capita income is less than $300 per year.
Now Cambodia is trying to crack down on the problem and the effort is shedding rare light on child trafficking -- a massive tragedy with global dimensions. According to the United Nations, 50 percent of the world's child trafficking takes place in Southeast Asia and Cambodia is on the US State Department's watch list of countries with major human trafficking problems. The children are often sold to Thailand and Malaysia where they become slaves facing a life of forced labor or, even worse, sex slaves forced to sell their bodies for the profit of their owners. Others are sold in Thailand and Vietnam as street beggars.
Globally, about 300,000 children are kidnapped by or sold to traffickers each year with girls being highly sought after. Seventy percent of the victims are female. Charity organizations estimate that trafficking in children in Thailand, which is considered the main transit country and destination for many children, is increasing by 20 percent annually.
Christian Schneider, spokesman for the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) in Cologne, Germany, has experienced first hand the adversity faced by children in the Cambodian border city Poipet. It's a place so impoverished that the shantytown neighborhoods are literally sinking in the mud. Human smugglers flock to the area and children have become little more than moving targets.
"Many families have been completely destroyed by the war," Schneider explained. "There's an unbelievable number of orphans and street kids who live in an extremely unstable social environment. That's why they're such easy prey." Comparably wealthy Thailand lies just on the other side of the border and thousands of people cross over everyday to hawk goods and to take odd jobs. It's a trip also made frequently by the child smugglers and they usually collect their money for the children as soon as they make the border crossing. "The children are beaten or given electrical shocks -- even though many of them have already been crippled by land mines" in the war-torn country said Schneider.
In most cases, the parents force themselves to believe that their children will have better lives in their new environments or that their children will be offered lucrative jobs. "It's often people they know who make the offer," Schneider said, explaining why families would trust the child smugglers. Many subconsciously know the grim truth of what's actually happening, but in this atmosphere of extreme poverty repressing reality has become an art form.
A corrupt legal system aids criminals
On Monday of this week, police discovered yet another case and arrested three men who had tried to smuggle four women, including two Vietnamese, over the border to Thailand and on to Malaysia. All three denied they were involved in human trafficking. If convicted by Cambodia's notoriously inefficient and corrupt court system -- which doesn't happen very often -- the men could face prison sentences of 15 to 20 years.
Governments and human rights organizations around the world have recently increased pressure on Phnom Penh to crack down on human traffickers. Cambodia doesn't have an anti-trafficking law on the books, but still, the country has been addressing the problem in recent years. The State Department estimates that in 2003 Cambodian police investigated 400 different cases. The Cambodian Interior Ministry says it prosecuted 142 traffickers that year, and 11 are still awaiting trial.
Help for traumatized victims
The work of international organizations like UNICEF with local authorities in these countries could become a light at the end of the tunnel for these children. In Poipet, two social workers work together with two police officers seeking to help children who have returned from Thailand -- including some who have escaped from their captors -- and are in danger of once again falling into the hands of smugglers. The helpers take the children to UNICEF protection centers where they are given access to housing, an education and psychological counselling.
"The girls often come back extremely traumatized," Schneider said. He said the safe havens the organization provides are extremely important -- sometimes the child traffickers even come to the center and demand the return of their "goods." Sometimes these "property" owners are even relatives. They claim they know what is best for the child.
With additional material from Reuters
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