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Poipet: Where Cambodians Are Trafficked into Thailand

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I had traveled to Cambodia's "wild west" border town of Poipet, in search of a story about human trafficking.

It was certainly the edgiest assignment I'd ever undertaken with World Vision. Everyone knew that trafficking was rife, yet nobody wanted to talk to us about it.

"There are no illegal crossings on our border," said an officer with the Cambodian border police. "Trafficking happens through the immigration post."

"There is no way people can pass through immigration illegally," said a Cambodian immigration officer. "That would require a high level of corruption from both Thai and Cambodian officials. They cross the border instead."

In fact, we were told in an anonymous interview, people go willingly and illegally across borders, across rivers, in casino cars straight through immigration. Hundreds of them every month. As many as half of them under-age.

Our source refused to be named because he said that would endanger his family. He said he was telling us because he was tired of it all, he wanted it to stop. He had children of his own.

The immigration officer told us that one of his duties was to bring back the bodies of Cambodians killed in Thailand. According to him, there were several each month, sometimes shot in bungled drug deals or arrests, sometimes beaten and left to die, or drowned in the river that forms the border.

Most of them had crossed illegally; without paperwork, it was difficult, upsetting, and sometimes impossible, to identify them.

"Why do people go with traffickers?" I asked everyone I met.

"Because they are poor. Because here they earn $3 a day; there they earn $8."

"Are children trafficked?" I asked.

"Yes," they answered. "But not on our watch."

Grasping at Poipet's slippery underbelly felt more like investigation than reporting. I will admit to suffering a twinge of regret that I could not push harder, break the crime rings with an exclusive "hidden camera" expose and the masked evidence of my anonymous source.

But in fact, what World Vision is already doing is probably more important than that. One major solution to the problem lies in advocacy, in working with governments across borders on their will to change, working with communities to teach them how to protect themselves and understand their rights.

World Vision has formed and joined coalitions that push governments to ratify and uphold legislation, including last year's groundbreaking Thailand law that finally recognized that boys and men could be considered victims of trafficking.

Last year World Vision also hosted a workshop for border authorities in Poipet, with both Thai and Cambodian officials in attendance to learn about the causes, effects and legalities of human trafficking.

Many of the police we met told us with pride that they had been in attendance.

"The situation is definitely improving," our source told us.

It's not time to rest just yet, though. Poipet is still a transient, dirty, lawless little town. Poverty still pushes people to take risks that will cost them dearly.

We met Phu Pean, a grandmother at home with her two grandchildren; her daughter travels across the border to Thailand each day to make shoes at 2 baht a pair.

"When should children work?" I asked her.

"Oh, once they can talk," she said. "Then they are able to look after themselves."

"Your grandchildren are talking now," I told her. "Would you ever send them to live and work in Thailand?"

She thought. "I would," she said, "but I don't know how to find the people that would take them."

At least -- unlike most of the other people I met in Poipet -- she was telling the truth.

-- Katie Chalk

World Vision released a report today called "Ten Things You Need to Know About Human Trafficking" [PDF]. Video of the interview with Phu Pean, as well as other people living and working in Poipet, is available online at World Vision.

Katie Chalk is a writer and researcher who has been working for World Vision in the Asia-Pacific for the last four years.