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Southeast Asia 'Hub' of Illegal Human Trafficking, Says UN - 2002-11-20

Endemic poverty and porous borders make Southeast Asia a center for the trade in human lives. The United Nations says as many as 200,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked each year in the region, most forced into servitude and the sex trade.

The dusty town of Poipet is one of the major border crossings into Thailand, the destination for thousands of Cambodians seeking work. Aid workers say growing numbers of children are headed there too, their parents compelled by grinding poverty and tricked by traders to rent out their children.

A few miles outside Poipet is a resettlement site for thousands of former refugees during decades of upheaval. There is little work and much poverty at the site.

One resident is 38-year-old Eang, who lives in the camp with her family. In early 2001 Ms. Eang gave birth to her fourth child. Months later she was still unable to pay the $25 bill for the midwife's services. Then her neighbor offered her a solution: if Ms. Eang rented her two daughters, aged eight and 10, the neighbor would pay her debt, and take the girls to Bangkok, where they would be put to work selling candy and flowers.

"They asked me to rent my children to them, and said they would forgive my debt. I agreed to that because they promised to look after them," Ms. Eang said.

It was more than a year before Ms. Eang saw her daughters again. Instead of selling flowers in Bangkok, the two children had been put to work in a begging ring on the streets of the Thai resort town of Pattaya. Eventually the Thai police arrested both girls. They ended up back in Cambodia in government homes for repatriated children.

Felicity Rorke works for the International Organization for Migration and is an advisor to one of the homes, which is in Battambang, around 160 kilometers southeast of Poipet.

She says around 450 children aged between eight and 12 have passed through the center in less than two years. "Eighty-five percent of the children repatriated through our program are coming from Banteay Meanchey province, and most of those from the Poipet area. Poipet is an area that is full of very transient families. There are not a lot of services there, and not a lot of support," Ms. Rorke said.

Worse still, said Ms. Rorke, the number of children being trafficked is likely to increase, as recurrent floods and droughts make life even more difficult for Cambodia's farmers.

"I don't think the evidence says it is getting any better - our numbers certainly aren't decreasing. There's a whole range of kids sitting in Thailand waiting to be repatriated. Most organizations talk about the problem getting worse - poverty tends to be getting more acute, which means more and more kids will be rented out by families who are desperate and don't have any other options," she said.

Cambodia Vision in Development, or CVD, is a group trying to prevent the trafficking of children in Poipet. In February, CVD opened a daycare center for children from the resettlement camp.

Executive director Mounh Sarath said 142 children are fed and educated at the center each day. The selection process is simple - those deemed most at risk are taken in. "These children don't have any other place to go. Their families go to beg at the Thai border and leave them behind. They don't have anything to eat, and could be at risk of being trafficked as they don't have anybody looking after them," he said.

Mr. Sarath says that the key to combating the trade in children is improving the livelihoods of their parents. But the resettlement area outside Poipet is still heavily mined. Cambodia's decades of strife means that much of the land that could be used for agriculture stands idle, even after years of peace.

Back at her shack in the resettlement site, Ms. Eang regrets letting her children be taken Thailand. Her two daughters are now in Poipet, but they will live in a center in town, and not in the camp with their mother.

In a way they can consider themselves lucky - the fact remains, saidr. Sarath, that in Southeast Asia's poorest country there are not enough projects either to alleviate poverty or to educate people of the dangers that traffickers pose. Until conditions improve, Cambodia's children will continue to be sold by the unscrupulous into a dangerous life in Thailand.