Young lives for sale
Child beggars are a common sight in Thailand’s tourist hotspots. But beneath the facade of poverty lies a sinister and abusive trade which preys on some of the region’s most vulnerable
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.
just say no: The Mirror Foundation discourages giving money to beggars on the street. Photos: Bangkok post archive
But Fil refused to accept the abusive behaviour of the woman who gave birth to him, and ran away to join other street children scrounging out a meagre existence on the city's sleazy red-light Walking Street.
They slept rough behind a fast food restaurant and rustled up enough money for meals of instant noodle, which they all shared.
Eventually human trafficking gangs recruited Fil to beg for them, offering him a place to sleep — albeit crammed in a small room with other child beggars — and regular meals. Life under the control of the gangs, who Fil knows little about apart from the fact they were Cambodian, was better then being with his mother. Still, he saw none of the money he earned, forced to turn over all the proceeds of his street begging to his exploiters.
The boy worked more than 12 hours straight per day in different locations in Pattaya. Although young, he understood he was in Thailand illegally and could be sent back to Cambodia any day, which is why he obeyed his "boss" and followed his instructions carefully.
“He told us to stay away from the police,” Fil recalled. “I couldn’t go back to Cambodia. Even though I worked very hard on the street, they took better care of me than my mother.”
Eventually Fil was picked up by Pattaya's Child Development and Welfare Centre. He now attends school and will remain at the centre until he is of legal age when his future, like other trafficked children in Thailand, becomes unclear. He could be sent back to Cambodia, or try and get residential status, or simply "disappear" into the anonymous workforce like so many of his compatriots.
When Spectrum spoke to Fil at the centre, his eyes darted from side to side and he seemed disengaged. When asked what he wants to do when he grows up, Fil simply replied that he wants to stay at home. When asked if he wanted to return to Cambodia, he said: "No, I want to stay here."
PAYING THE PRICE
Witanapat Rutanavaleepong is the head of the Stop Child Beggars project at the Mirror Foundation, and has worked on human trafficking issues for the past decade. The foundation originally started as a missing persons centre and the child begging project grew out of that.
“In 2004, we received a report from one Thai family about their missing son,” Mr Witanapat said. “We traced all the clues and found that the child had been kidnapped and forced to work as a beggar. After we witnessed that case, we began to think that many of the child beggars we see on the street are not only the result of poverty, but also because of human trafficking.”
The foundation began conducting its own research into the problem, interviewing child beggars in front of large shopping malls, at skytrain stations and popular weekend markets. It soon discovered that almost all the children were Cambodian, and many had been sold to Thai traffickers for 1,500-3,000 baht in Poipet, along with the promise of future payments.
Mr Witanapat, whose research team went to the border town with the help of World Vision and other NGOs, said the traffickers simply walked into villages and offered cash to parents for their children. They told the parents that the children would work in Thailand and could repatriate money, and would also be sent to school.
“Three thousand baht is a lot of money for a Cambodian. It is a large enough amount to encourage the parents to willingly let their children go with an unknown person,” Mr Witanapat said.
He said the traffickers would tell the parents the child was “rented” and monthly payments equal to the child’s purchase price would be ongoing. However, the traffickers only returned to the villages to pay the parents for a few months. After that, the amount was reduced until all payments were stopped. The promise of education went unhonoured.
Some traffickers will give a verbal agreement for the rental period, telling parents they want to rent their child for six months to one year. Some traffickers return the children; most don’t.
Chay, 12, from Poipet, was purchased by a Cambodian man from his family when he was 10 years old. The person who bought him told his parents he would be sent to work in Bangkok, where he would be able to earn money to send home.
At first, the man appeared kind. But that kindness quickly faded, and Chay said the trafficker became a beast. He brought Chay to stay with a Cambodian family, where he was beaten every day and forced to do menial work around the house. “I tried to run away from that family but they always found me. They hit me harder and more often, so I stopped running away,” Chay said.
When he failed to meet their expectations, Chay’s adoptive family sold him back to the agent and he was taken to Pattaya to another family. He thought his life might improve, but he was wrong.
His new family was also a Cambodian couple. They were working on a building site in Pattaya, where Chay was forced to do heavy labouring work, despite his young age and frail build. The work took its toll on Chay’s body, and as the physical abuse worsened he decided to run away again.
He found another Cambodian man who promised to send him back to his real family. But again, Chay’s fortunes quickly turned sour; the man was a scout for a human trafficking ring operating in Pattaya.
After a lifetime of misfortune, however, Chay had a stroke of luck. The trafficker was arrested before Chay could be sold, and the boy is now being looked after by the Child Development and Welfare Centre in Pattaya.
Chay, like other children rescued from human traffickers, will remain in the custody of the centre while the case against his alleged abusers is before the courts. Despite all his travails in Thailand, Chay says he does not want to return home to Cambodia.
Friends International is an organisation which deals directly with child issues in Southeast Asia. The group’s research on child begging, conducted between 2005 and 2006, offers some of the most recent and comprehensive data on child trafficking in the region.
preying on sympathy: Children, often with ‘mother’ figures, rarely see any of the money they make.
Police told Spectrum their statistics on exploited children do not take nationality into account.
A major finding of the Friends International research is that a large majority of Cambodian child beggars are not trafficked, but are brought to Thailand by their parents or relatives. More than 80% of children interviewed said they came with their biological mothers or relatives.
It also found most children earned up to 1,000 baht per day, with some earning more than this. The children said they begged in areas frequented by foreigners as well as almost exclusively Thai spots, indicating that giving patterns were generous across the board.
For those children controlled by traffickers, all of their proceeds are passed up the chain. The children themselves receive nothing apart from a place to sleep and infrequent meals.
Supakorn Noja, also known as Khru Ja, is the director of the Pattaya-based Child Development and Welfare Centre. He explained that the main problem for children in the eastern region is sexual assault and being forced to work as a beggar.
“Human trafficking in Pattaya is a very big operation,” he said. “I personally don’t think the police can do much to help solve the problem.”
Mr Supakorn said his network had discovered that one Thai person is at the helm of a large network of around 40 Cambodians who control and monitor almost all the child beggars working in Pattaya. The gang buys entire apartment buildings to keep the children in, using the profits from their work to build new blocks.
“This is one of the most profitable businesses in Pattaya. A lot of people earn benefits from it,” Mr Supakorn said.
Each child beggar generally has their own designated area, and will not be allowed to venture beyond it. Mr Supakorn explained that people who don’t belong to the trafficking network and wish to beg in Pattaya must pay a protection fee. The children can earn large amounts of money per day, but the Mirror Foundation said they will rarely see any of it.
According to Mr Witanapat, the person who monitors the children is not the trafficker. These “watchers” are hired by the traffickers to accompany the children to designated spots such as temporary markets, temple fairs, or public transport transit point such as BTS or bus stations.
“The traffickers pay the watchers 6,000 baht a month just to take the children to the area listed,” Mr Witanapat said. “All of the money that the children earn from begging will be given to the watcher, who will later pass it on to his boss.
“Many families who gave away their children were tricked into believing their children would be sent to school in Thailand.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Pol Col Chitpop Tomuam, superintendent of Anti-Human Trafficking Division 1 in Bangkok, told Spectrum that almost all the child beggars arrested in Bangkok and surrounding areas are Cambodian.
Child protection laws specifically mention that a mother forcing her children to beg is not considered human trafficking, meaning trafficking gangs sometimes employ older women to act as a mother.
Another scam the police have detected is dressing the children up as students with a donation box. Pol Col Chitpop said police can usually tell that uniforms are not being worn properly.
“We had an investigation team follow them all the way from where they were begging to where they lived, and learned about their whole operation,” Pol Col Chitpop said.
He told Spectrum that his team followed a child who had been begging in front of a shopping mall. He said there was no “watcher” closely monitoring the child. The officers followed the boy as he took a bus back to a rental house in suburban area. Once he arrived, he poured the cash out from the donation box and gave it to a man whose job was to collect money from children.
“The man will take all of the money the kids earn and give some to the children,” Pol Col Chitpop said. The police arrested the man after a one-week investigation and learned from the children that none of them were forced to do it. “They understand that this is a job. They earn some money, save some from themselves and some for their families. Therefore, they don’t mind doing it,” he said.
Mr Supakorn explained that the child beggars are divided into two main groups. The first are those from poor families who enter Thailand illegally to beg for money. “This type of beggar is independent and generally doesn’t belong to any mafia organisation,” he said.
The second and more common type are those beggars who are brought here through human trafficking networks. Mr Supakorn said sometimes the traffickers lure entire families to come to Thailand to work. Once they arrive here, the trafficker reports to the police that they have come to work illegally. When the parents are arrested and deported, the traffickers keep the children to exploit as beggars.
Some traffickers who have more children than they can take care of will rent some out to other begging networks.
“The children aged eight to 12 are the most popular. People who want to rent them have to pay up to 12,000 per month,” Mr Supakorn said.
FINDING A SOLUTION
After conducting extensive field research, Mr Witanapat from the Mirror Foundation realised that the child beggar problem was a genuine human trafficking issue rather than simply a matter of poverty. “I immediately contacted police for help,” he said. An ensuing police crackdown helped solve the problem — for a while. But three months later, it was business as usual for child traffickers.
The Mirror Foundation began to realise its approach wasn’t working. Mr Witanapat’s team sat down together to discuss the real reasons why child beggars from Cambodia keep coming back.
“The main reason is that they can earn a lot of money here,” Mr Witanapat said. Thai culture, he said, suggests that it it is the right thing to do to give money to child beggars. “Foreigners who visit Thailand also feel bad for the kids, so they usually receive money from many people out of pity,” he added.
When the Mirror Foundation found that the income child beggars can earn is the main factor driving the trade, they began to campaign against the trafficking business itself.
“We encourage people to help the children not by giving them money but by reporting them to authorities so they can receive proper care,” Mr Witanapat said.
Corruption hampers efforts to solve the problem, as do delays in the investigative process. Mr Supakorn from the Child Development and Welfare Centre said most of the Cambodians who fall victim to human trafficking are deported as soon as they are arrested. “The investigation process usually takes a long time. The police can’t really trace the trafficker quickly enough before they run away,” he said.
Up until a few years ago, some children who were forced to beg on the street would go to the police to seek help. But the traffickers have come up with a new approach to prevent this from happening, telling the kids the police will come after their family in Cambodia.
“The children are now running away from the police because they fear that their parents will be arrested for cooperating with human traffickers,” Mr Witanapat explained.
Pol Col Chitpop said sometimes the children tell police the whole story about how they were forced to beg. But by the time they have to testify against an alleged trafficker, the story had changed dramatically.
The Mirror Foundation found that 80% of the child beggars in Thailand are Cambodian. Most of the rest are from Myanmar and Laos, with a very small percentage of Thais.
The Child Protection Act gives police full power to tackle child-related crimes. But the Mirror Foundation told Spectrum that police have done little, preferring to leave the work to the many other agencies which are trying to address the problem.
Even if they are rescued by police, the children face an uncertain future. Some are sent to shelters in Thailand, while some are sent home to Cambodia. But the Mirror Foundation said some children were abused by their families in Cambodia. “It doesn’t help much to send the children back where they are abused,” Mr Witanapat said. “It will get them back to human trafficking again and the circle will continue.”
He said it will take a broader public effort to root out the problem completely. Giving money to child beggars does not help give them a better future, he said. All of the money is taken away by the traffickers, helping to fuel their criminal enterprise.
“We have to stop thinking the child begging problem is to do with poverty,” Mr Witanapat said. “It is purely a human trafficking problem.”
rescue efforts: From far left, children saved in Pattaya, a police raid, an alleged trafficker, and adults who were later arrested for exploiting children. Photos: Child Development and Welfare Centre