PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Eleven-year-old Sareth was friends with some of the children who lived in the crowded, tiny house in a back alley in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov commune. “They would leave in the afternoon, and come back in the morning,” he said. “They didn’t go to school, they would just sleep all day.”
Sareth did not realize that the children were the victims of a child labor ring. His father, Sarath, said he saw the children leave daily around 5 pm on the back of a motorbike, each carrying a platter of sliced mango and other fruit. The children would work all night selling fruit around the city, before returning to the tiny house in Chbar Ampov around 5am, and start the ordeal again a few hours later. Some residents of the neighborhood said the children began working at around 10 am.
Twenty-two children, all from a village in Prey Veng province, had been exploited as free labor for almost a year before Khmer Times tipped off anti-trafficking NGO AIM SWAT about them.
Neighbors claimed they never suspected a child-labor exploitation ring was headquartered next door, though they all said they saw the children leave to work all night.
“[The children] have freedom like other kids. They just helped with the business,” said 28-year-old Chhay Ya.
Early Morning Raid
At around 9am yesterday morning, a team of police from the government’s anti-human trafficking force and members of AIM SWAT went to the house in Chbar Ampov. They surrounded it and arrested two adults suspected of trafficking. They brought them and the children to the police station to give depositions. As of 6:30 pm yesterday the children and the suspected traffickers were still being held at the station.
According to Eric Meldrum, a former detective from the UK who is now investigation director at AIM SWAT, the police have not yet decided on the charges.
The raid followed two months of information-gathering by AIM SWAT and the police, after they received photographs, videos and information from Khmer Times. Editors at Khmer Times decided not to publish a report on the child-trafficking ring because it could put the children in further danger. Instead, they approached Mr. Meldrum and requested that he and his organization investigate the case.
Mr. Meldum said the case sets a precedent because it is the first time a child labor ring has been busted in Cambodia. “Usually the kids are out begging or selling with their families,” he explained. “In this case the families had brought them here. [The children] were clearly being exploited. They were living together in a macabre little hothouse and made to work all the time.”
One clue that indicated these children were far more organized than others selling trinkets and food on the streets of Phnom Penh was the packaging of the fruit they sold. The slices were layered on styrofoam, wrapped in cellophane, and carried on metal trays. The children were also monitored by two young men on motorbikes. One of them was arrested yesterday.
The children started work on the Riverside and in front of Nagaworld, and then shifted to Street 51 at about 11.30 pm, according to vendors interviewed by Khmer Times.
Neighbors said the only time the children’s parents would visit the alley was to collect their children’s meager salaries. Some neighbors put the amount at 60,000 riel (about $15) a month, while others said the children were not paid.
Mr. Meldrum said it is unclear to what extent the parents were aware of their children’s work. “Did the parents not realize they were working these kinds of hours?” he asked.
Busting the trafficking ring is only the first step in ensuring the children do not fall back into the hands of traffickers, after they return home. “The children will be reintegrated with their families wherever possible,” said Mr. Meldrum. “Appropriate action will be taken to ensure that this doesn’t happen to them again, and to ensure that the family doesn’t feel the need to make their children work.”
Mr. Meldrum said the bust has made the Phnom Penh police more aware of the risks of children being exploited by trafficking rings as free labor. “This is the first arrest of its kind,” he said, “so it’s a big step forward for child protection.”
Additional reporting by Vincent MacIsaac
The house where the 22 children from a village in Prey Veng were being kept. The children, who sold fruit on the city’s street, ranged in age from seven to early teens. KT/Fabien Mouret