Child trafficking: Fagin lives!

What's sold, what's bought?

Who sells, what’s bought?

Disturbing story in the Bangkok Post on 29 June titled Young Lives for Sale. It details the results of an investigation into child beggars in Pattaya, the Thai travel destination nearest Cambodia.

When Fil’s mother brought him from Cambodian as a 10-year-old four years ago, her intentions were far from pure — she planned to exploit him as a child beggar around the tourist hotspots of Pattaya.

And she did, until he ran away and joined a gang of street-kids begging and sleeping rough on Pattaya’s Walking Street. Walking Street is not dangerous – it has one of the highest ratios of cops to civilians in Thailand – but it’s for grown-ups.

Anyway, from being a free-lance child beggar Fil graduated to an organised gang, what you might call the corporatised side of the business. He worked 12 hours a day and got to keep none of his earnings, but he had a proper place to sleep and regular meals, so things were looking up. His new bosses took better care of him than his mother had, and he worked hard for them and avoided the cops, because he didn’t want to be sent back to Cambodia.

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 2.47.08 PMEventually his luck changed and he got picked up by an NGO called the Mirror Foundation (which doesn’t seem to have updated it’s home page since January 2013 – the link is to its projects page). MF has a project called Stop Child Beggars which is trying to investigate and understand the trade in Pattaya. This is what they’ve found:

  • Eighty percent of child beggars in Thailand – not in Pattaya, in all Thailand – are Cambodian. The rest are mostly Burmese and Lao, with very few Thai children.
  • The problem is one of human trafficking, not poverty – meaning children are bought into Thailand in order to make money for others, not because of poverty at home.
  • The children in organised begging gangs are not dong so from fear or coercion – they prefer this life to the alternatives, which are to live rough or to go back to Cambodia.
  • Each child has an adult  watcher and a work area: he can’t go outside it, and no one is allowed to encroach. The watcher, who’s paid 6,000 baht (about $200) a month, collects the day’s earnings each evening and passes them up the chain. The children keep little of what they collect.

The article doesn’t say how much a child beggar typically brings in, but if a gang finds itself with “too many” children (meaning not enough watchers?) they’ll typically rent the excess  out at up to 12,000 baht a month (about $370), meaning that the renter expects to make considerably more than this.

The Mirror Foundation reported their findings to the police and the cops cracked down on the child beggars, but it didn’t work – the police can’t spend all their time picking up kids off the street, and when the pressure went off the kids came back.

There’s much more, but the bottom line is, don’t give money to children begging, not in Pattaya, not anywhere.



Incidentally, and because this is supposed to be a blog about books, I recommend Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok thriller Breathing Water – the link is to the Amazon Kindle page, and there are readers’ reviews. One of the strands is about the begging business.

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And since we have a little space left: a video on the subject here; an article from the Pattaya Mail; and a Burmese slant here (I think the Burmese might be the most pitiable, their government being even more useless than the Cambodians).

And  it’s not just Cambodia

(The child in these photos, by the way, is not Fil, they are Cambodian children begging in Pattaya, from Flickr contributor lyndhan).

In A Rocket Made Of Ice

rocketIn A Rocket Made Of Ice is the story of Wat Opot and the remarkable Wayne Matthysse, the man behind it. It’s also the story of Gail Gutradt. This is the publisher’s blurb:

Gail Gutradt was at a crossroads in her life when she learned of the Wat Opot Children’s Community. Begun with just $50 in the pocket of Wayne Matthysse, a former Marine Corps medic in Vietnam, Wat Opot, a temple complex nestled among Cambodia’s verdant rice paddies, was once a haunted scrubland that became a place of healing and respite where children with or orphaned by HIV/AIDs could live outside of fear or judgment, and find a new family-a place that Gutradt calls “a workshop for souls.” Disarming, funny, deeply moving, In a Rocket Made of Ice gathers the stories of children saved and changed by this very special place, and of one woman’s transformation in trying to help them. With wry perceptiveness and stunning humanity and humor, this courageous, surprising, and evocative memoir etches the people of Wat Opot forever on your heart.

What that doesn’t make clear is that the prose is stunning and poetic, the subject is horrifying (what else can you call the AIDS orphans of Cambodia?), and the story is a testament to the goodness and greatness of the human soul.

It all finds its centre in Wayne, so let’s start with him. Wayne  grew up a conservative Christian community in rural Michigan, joined the Navy, and went to Vietnam as a medic. His experiences there shook his faith and set him on a spiritual journey that culminated, years later, with the establishment of Wat Opot in a village in Takeo province, a hospice and orphanage for the victims of Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic and their children.

Wat Opot, and Wayne, are the kind of NGO I can appreciate. They have a reputation for being grass-roots and doing a lot with a little, in an industry (the aid industry) that far too often does a little with a lot. For example:

A wealthy, anonymous donor had offered to build houses for families with AIDS. They were willing to donate five thousand dollars for each house, a fortune in a country where a farmer’s wage averaged a dollar a day. Wayne wrote back that in his opinion five thousand dollar houses would cause problems. It seemed clear to him that the donor, though generous and well-intentioned, had no sense of what money could buy in Cambodia. Such a house would incite envy in the community and bring misfortune to its owner. As soon as it was finished, every relative the family ever had, and many they did not know they had, would want to move in with them, and before long someone would find a way to force the original family to move out. Or perhaps someone from the village, someone with power, would remember a large unpaid debt the family owed and, again, the family would soon find themselves homeless. Wayne suggested the fundraiser tell the donor that he could build a perfectly adequate house for three hundred dollars. But the donor had other ideas and was never heard from again. Still, Wayne was convinced he had done the right thing.

Rocket has a complicated publishing history: available right now is a limited edition from Heian-kyo Media, the publisher of the prestigious Kyoto Journal (the link is to the on-line Journal, you’ll find the link to the book on that page). If you can wait, Random House will be bringing it out in August,but it’s cheaper if you pre-order through Amazon. Attempts are under way to get copies into Cambodia for sale at Monument and at Wat Opot, but there are problems with Customs – but these shall be overcome, and you can ask Monument to keep a copy back for you.

Jonathan Van Smit

Yama-3-660x439Jonathan Van Smit is a Hong Kong-based street photographer. He’s done (or is doing) a project in Phnom Penh, called Heart of Darkness. It’s about the people of the slums behind street 51, around the Golden Sorya Mall area.

glue-sniffing-kid-Street-51-slums-660x440He talks a little about the project in this interview – the thing that interests me most is his questioning of the project’s justification – these are hard-hitting images, difficult to look at, (very noir), but how can they be justified? There’s no easy answer to that I guess, but for me, they’re an education about an aspect of Phnom Penh life that’s normally closed off.

Phouk-Navy-660x439More about Jonathan and his photography here. “Basically I just walk around for hours, sometimes all day, taking photos of anything that looks interesting to me or fits into one of my themes. I’m particularly interested in cities, how they change, the lives of people who have become marginalized by economic change, and in how they deal with adversity.”