Friday, October 9, 2009

Khmer girls' trafficking ordeal
The town of Poipet, where the borders of Cambodia and Thailand meet, has a sense of the Wild West about it.
Newly constructed high-rise casinos are crammed into the few hundred metres of no man's land which... separates the two countries.
Stand at the border gates for half an hour, and you will see second-hand jeans, produce and mechanical parts stacked high on wooden carts with wooden wheels, clattering chaotically towards another country.

But it is not just goods that are traded here - people are as well. It is a human trafficking hotspot.

A recent court case in Bangkok has revealed the way in which human trafficking networks operate across the border.

In a conviction the United Nations has hailed as a breakthrough, a woman named Khun Thea was sentenced to 85 years in jail for luring Khmer girls into prostitution.

It is the most substantial sentence ever given in South East Asia as punishment for engaging in human trafficking.

Part of the reason for the conviction was the courage of a handful of Cambodian women, who travelled to Bangkok to testify against Khun Thea.
Two of them, now living again inside Cambodia, spoke to the BBC and revealed their stories for the first time.
They cannot be identified as they are living in fear of retribution from other members of the same trafficking network.
But they said they do not regret participating in the court case, and facing the woman who forced them into prostitution.
One told me she wanted to see justice done, and to prevent the same thing happening to other girls.

Looking for cash

She and her cousin were 16 years old when they decided, against their family's wishes, to travel to Bangkok. The New Year was approaching, and they wanted some extra cash for the festive season.

A neighbour had told them they could make good money washing dishes in a restaurant in the Thai capital.
They were smuggled across the border in the back of a pick-up truck, covered by a tarpaulin. When they finally reached the capital, they were taken to an apartment. But they soon realised something was wrong.

One explained: "A businessman arrived at our apartment and asked us to open our clothes, because he wanted to look at our bodies. He asked if I had a husband. That's when I knew we weren't going to work in a restaurant.

"I became really worried, I had no way to get help. I remember I began to cry."

The pair were taken to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. One was put to work on the streets, the other in a karaoke bar. Both were threatened and beaten.

"At first I refused to have sex with men. Then I was beaten so badly I had to hide my face for a month, until it healed. Then I was told again I would have to sleep with the customers. I knew if I refused I would be beaten again. I had no choice but to agree."

After a few months on the streets, one of the girls was arrested. After a year spent in prisons and detention centres in Malaysia and Thailand, she was deported back to Cambodia. Her family thought she was dead.

In Kuala Lumpur, her cousin faced a more difficult escape. She approached the Malaysian police for help, who she said then sold her across the border to a Thai police unit.
There she was forced to work off her debt to the police in another bar, before finally finding her way home.

Both girls now dream of opening a shop in their hometown. But they are both subject to gossip in the community. One told me she would like to have a husband and family, but was unsure whether anyone would accept her.
Community leaders despair at the risks taken by the thousands of people who travel across the border for work. But they recognise that they are driven to do so by poverty.

Until there are other choices, the desire for a better life will make people vulnerable to smugglers and traffickers who make a profit at the cost of their freedom.

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