Cambodian child smuggler goes on trial

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The Independent Online
BRUTAL CHILD smuggler Seng Saroeun will be the first woman to go on trial in Cambodia for trafficking children into begging syndicates.

Her victims were aged as young as three, and were sent to neighbouring Thailand and put to work in Bangkok's tourist heartland. They were severely beaten if they failed to make enough money.

Seng Saroeun was arrested by Cambodian police after three of her youngsters were seized while begging, and sent back across the border by immigration officials where they were housed in a child protection centre in Poipet, Banteay Meanchey.

But Seng Saroeun was so well connected that she had no qualms about marching into the centre with a squad of corrupt police officers to demand the children be returned.

Staff were threatened but refused to hand over the youngsters. Instead they called in a rival force of territorial officers who arrested Seng Saroeun. She is now holed up in Sisophon Prison, western Cambodia, awaiting a trial date. She has already appeared once to be charged with trafficking.

As corruption is endemic in Cambodia, she may be able to buy her way to freedom unless international human rights organisations pressure the government to hold a trial.

Seven-year-old Noi, who is expected to testify, said she hated working in Bangkok. "There were three of us living in a house. We would have to get up early and go out begging until late. I begged near a bridge and foreigners often gave me coins. I didn't like my "mother" because if I did not make money she would whip me with a wire." Her brother Ton, four, and friend, Wat, three, endured the same dismal regime.

Noi, who arrived back in Cambodia in March, cannot remember anything about her real parents. Like thousands of other impoverished children living on the streets of Cambodia she was either kidnapped or her family sold her to the trafficker. Noi has already shared her story on Cambodian television as part of a campaign to persuade poor parents not to sell their children or send them to work in Thailand.

The International Organisation for Migration says the size of the problem is huge, as there are up to 2,000 Cambodian child beggars operating in Bangkok. Every week Thai immigration officials bus the illegal immigrants back to the border. Many are immediately spotted by corrupt police and sent back to work the red-light districts of Bangkok.

Ironically, the close of the war with Cambodia's extreme left Khmer Rouge rebels has made the situation worse. The end of fighting in the border areas has boosted cross-border trade of all types. Thousands of desperate Cambodian orphans and war victims are now resettling in the frontier towns and spilling over into Thailand. Begging, or working as prostitutes or poorly paid labourers, is often the only escape route from poverty.

Next week the governments of Thailand and Cambodia have announced they will start to work together to stem the flow of beggars by training checkpoint police, provincial governors and judges to crack down on traffickers.

The Thai parliamentarian and child rights advocate Saisuree Chutikul is the force behind the agreement. He said: "The re-education of corrupt law enforcers and border police is important. The police are not always bad but we need to identify the good ones and get them to work with us."

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