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In a Thai-Cambodian border town, protecting trafficked children and women

By Robert Few

© UNICEF Thailand/2006/Few
Thousands of children cross the border between Thailand and Cambodia every day to look for work. All too often, they find exploitation and abuse.

ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand, 7 August 2006 – Aranyaprathet market, which the Thais call Rong Glua, is a sprawling village of shops and light industry employing some 10,000 people on the Thai side of the Thailand-Cambodia border.

But upon arriving at the market, you could be forgiven for thinking you had somehow slipped across the dividing line into Cambodia. Everyone working here is Cambodian, and the market is home to a kind of poverty that has not been seen in most of Thailand for a decade or more.

Most of the wares for sale in Rong Glua are on open display, arrayed along miles of dust- and rubbish-strewn alleys where the barefoot children of the workers play with broken toys, plastic bags and things scavenged from garbage bins.

But there are other goods on offer, goods that are hidden away. Crouching in the darker corners, or locked up in nearby houses, children are also for sale – part of the underground market and its grim trade in child sex.

Exploited in the sex trade

We are walking through a crowded alleyway, guided by Kriangsak Bunyen, who works for a UNICEF- and World Vision-supported drop-in centre that provides education and outreach services in Aranyaprathet.

“You see that table there?” he asks. “Agents wait at that table in the afternoon. They meet their clients here and take them to the children.”

These children are mostly Cambodian or Vietnamese. They either have fled extreme poverty in their home countries for the relative prosperity of Thailand or have been trafficked across the border to be exploited.

We walk past one festering alley where ‘short-time’ rooms (nothing more than squares of dirt enclosed by planks of mouldy wood) are available for a couple of dollars, and children for a couple more.

Two young girls watch us out of the corners of their eyes. Without the introduction of an agent, they wouldn’t risk offering their services, but Mr. Kriangsak knows they are available.

Most of the girls and women in this corner of the market are working in the sex trade – including some who sell papaya salad as a cover while they wait for clients. One of them is heavily pregnant, but she still has customers.

© UNICEF Thailand/2006/Few
Vulnerable children in Aranyaprathet market on the Thai-Cambodian border can rest and find support, including basic health care and legal services, at this drop-in centre supported by UNICEF and World Vision.
Services for victims

“What kind of a man pays for sex with a woman who is six-months pregnant?” asks UNICEF Child Protection Officer Amanda Bissex. “How can you begin to understand that? But we have to get a clearer picture of what is happening here so that we can help children who are being abused or, far better, intervene before that abuse happens.”

One intervention that is already under way was set out in the Memorandum of Understanding on Bilateral Cooperation for Eliminating Trafficking in Children and Women and Assisting Victims of Trafficking.

Signed by Thailand and Cambodia in 2003 after extensive input from UNICEF, the memorandum has proven challenging to implement. But regular meetings now take place between government officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations on both sides of the border.

This coordination means that when Cambodian children who have been abused in Thailand are repatriated, they are more likely to get the rehabilitation services and protection they need. It means they are less likely simply to end up back in the same situation that led to them crossing the border and being abused in the first place.

Protecting the next generation

Cross-border agreements like this are leading to better policing and greater protection for those at risk.

At the same time, informal education and outreach projects like the Aranyaprathet centre run by UNICEF and World Vision are helping to break the cycle of poverty. In addition to basic subjects like reading and math, the project teaches market children about their rights and where to go for help if they are abused.

The drop-in centre not only helps the children better protect themselves, but also serves to protect the next generation – since better educated parents are more empowered to care for their children and keep them safe from the abuses they themselves may have faced. This is critical because, often in Aranyaprathet, even the child sex workers have children of their own.