By Caroline Riseboro – VP, Marketing and Communications
Early this morning, we left Cambodia and walked across the border into Thailand. We joined ten thousand other Cambodians, all heading over for the promise of a better life. There were young women in bright uniforms with short skirts, destined for their jobs at one of the dozens of nearby casinos. Other families, most walking barefoot, were pushing huge, make-shift wagons to stock up at the Rongklua Market just north of the border. Some were already returning, laden with food, with the hope of making a few dollars as they sold it back in Cambodia.
To enter at this official border, you must pay fees and show documents. But thousands of Cambodians crossed this morning without doing either. They used one of the illegal entrances in the jungle, somewhere along a border hundreds of kilometres long.
For some Cambodians it’s a relatively short trek to Thailand. They’ve built their huts just metres from the border, and cross illegally every day with the hope of making a few dollars to continue the meager survival of them and their families. It’s like having another country in your own backyard, except for that furtive dash for safety when the guards aren’t looking. Human traffickers don’t have to be so quick with their cargo. With salaries of a modest $300 per month, police can be easily bought. Traffickers generally find it quite convenient to bring slaves through the jungle.
Life at the breaking point
“Work at the casino,” she says, with eyes wide. “Because they are the only ones with the nice clothes.” Ask her what she’s most afraid of, and the response is almost universal for a child her age.
“Ghosts,” she admits, with a shy giggle.
Move on down the list of fears and you get a picture her life as an illegal Cambodian child migrant, living in a cramped storage box in Thailand’s Rongklua Market where her aunt works.
Riding her rickety bike home from the World Vision office – where she comes to read and have a bath – takes J straight past what the locals call “Channel Seven”. It’s little more than an opening in a fence, with a path disappearing behind the shacks and into the jungle. This illegal border crossing is so handy that some Cambodian migrant children duck back into their home country to attend school in the afternoons.
Apart from the occasional sweep, the police normally turn a blind eye to the migrant settlement in the market. The owners of the storage boxes pull in an exorbitant $80 a month per unit. And for that, you get laneways filled with pools of a reeking green substance and a miserable night’s sleep on a concrete floor.
The rent is a fortune for J’s aunt, who is supporting her own children, as well as J’s mother who has a mental illness. Walking into the family’s box home, with its rags for curtains and filthy floor, made it clear that there’s absolutely no margin for misfortune here. If the aunt can’t make enough money, the children are the safety net.
With a chill, I remembered Mao back at the Trauma Recovery Centre in Phnom Penh. The girl had sold herself for sex to a Westerner rather than have her family face eviction. And I recalled the stories I’d heard of entire families lured deeper into Thailand by traffickers, with the promise of that decent job. One last, desperate grasp at hope.
Using every tool we’ve got
In the World Vision Thailand office near J’s market home, it was wonderful to watch children sprawled on the floor, reading, singing and playing with stickers. I was intrigued to see a staff member sit down on the floor to teach them about eluding human traffickers – and escaping if they’re caught.
He used a story told with large pictures, a common teaching tool for team members travelling around the area. Characters that looked something like Asian Muppets were shown sticking together, thinking critically, phoning a hotline number, and turning to other adults for help. The children lapped it up, wanting to know all they could.
This prevention work is crucial and effective. But this is one small office along a lengthy border. And by the time some children cross that border, they’re already in the hands of a trafficker, looking to exploit them. Even working closely with our Cambodian offices and partnering with other agencies, we can’t possibly reach them all on our own.
Trafficked children enter Thailand not just from Cambodia, but from Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. The economies of all three countries are still struggling to recover from war, genocide and political upheaval – and Thailand often seems like the best solution. With a new East-West highway about to be completed, spanning all four countries from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal, movement will be that much easier.
As the government of Canada puts the finishing touches on its National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, World Vision, along with other Canadians, is asking them to do the following:
- Think of the children we’ve met across Cambodia and Thailand. We’re imploring the Canadian government to put children front and centre in its plan.
- Think of J, an extremely vulnerable child living right in trafficker territory. CIDA’s role in the plan must include training for children and youth on how to protect themselves from trafficking.
- Think of Vanna, the girl we met in the brick factory. The government should pledge to tackle labour trafficking. For every one person trafficked for sex, nine are trafficked for labour.
- Think of the hundreds of thousands of children who are trafficked around the world, and make the plan international in scope. Just working within Canada won’t truly tackle the issue of human exploitation.
The children we’ve met in Cambodia and Thailand need this plan to be a strong one, and they need you. Whether it’s signing our petition about the National Action Plan, questioning what you buy, or just forwarding this blog to a friend.
It will take hard work and a great deal of love. But together, we can end child slavery. Thank you for travelling – and learning – along with me this week.
- Caroline Riseboro
Join the discussion on this blog and discover other ways to end child slavery on the Voices for Children Facebook Group page.