In IOFA’s research conducted with 12 Phnom Penh anti-trafficking non-governmental organizations in the summer of 2010, the risk factors of a) poverty, b) prior experience with interpersonal violence, and c) isolation were identified as primary risk factors for trafficking and exploitation. During March 2011, focus groups held with youth who had left orphanage care in Phnom Penh showed highly disproportionate experiences of all three risk factors.
Nearly all post-care youth interviewed live on less than $1 a day, and many shoulder the responsibility of caring for others while they work exploitative, physically harmful jobs.
One young man described his typical work day beginning at 4 am, and continuing until 9 pm. His feet were swollen and covered in infected sores, from serving in a restaurant. He explains that he first began this job working only for food, until the management trusted him enough to pay him about $30 a month.
Another young man finds himself working 84 hours a week in a paper mill, from 6 pm to 6 am. He, too, is paid $30 a month – ten of which is withheld by his employer for the mandatory sleeping arrangements, a raised wooden platform within the paper mill shared with dozens of other mill employees.
2. History of interpersonal violence
Although the youth were not asked about experiences prior to their leaving orphanage care, many youth chose to share the heart-breaking abuses they had endured within orphanage care or at the hands of their families as children. Several youth reported forced labor and physical violence from the orphanage staff. One young woman reported physical abuse so severe in the orphanage that she ran away, and sought work in restaurants for food. One restaurant took her in – but would not let her leave. There, she was forced to work in their kitchen, and was deprived of both food and pay. After several months of forced labor, she managed to run away again, returning to her home town and begging neighbors to find her extended family to help her, before she was forced to return to the restaurant. Days later, her great aunt came to the restaurant and rescued her from her traffickers.
Nearly all of the youth interviewed reported extreme isolation, and shared the belief that their communities “hate” them. They expressed deep distress, stating that “if I take a wrong turn, no one will be there to correct me.” The youth reported unanimously that they “have no friends.”
Children in government orphanages are given the surname Rorth, which means “belonging to the
government” in Khmer - a designation that predisposes care leavers for social isolation from their communities. Explained the youth, in their words:
— “They [society] treat us like we are not human.”
— “Everyone is ready to tell me I am lazy.”
— “I feel hopeless and outside of society.”
That this population is at a uniquely high risk for trafficking is reasonably intuitive; children in orphanage care, particularly those who interact with many cycles of volunteer caregivers, are at an exponentially increased risk of forming disorganized attachments,, a developmental problem that prevents them from forming positive social relationships with others. This may manifest itself in the inability to form protective community relationships (shown to prevent trafficking) or, conversely, in indiscriminate affection and trust to everyone, including traffickers. Strict authoritarian childcare structures in orphanages preclude youth from developing safe independence and responsibility,,. Indeed, a 2007 BBC report described orphanages as “magnets” for traffickers.
Perhaps care-leavers are overlooked as a vulnerable population because they are generally educated. However, the youth also reported extreme psychological distress, uncontrollable emotions, and paralyzing fear. Their education is useless without the social skills and communities necessary to use it. A third of Phnom Penh orphanages openly admitted they provide no support whatsoever to youth who leave their care, in a large-scale 2007 study. With an estimated 10,000 children in orphanage care in Cambodia –35% of whom are older than 159 – and a recent, rapid growth of orphanages around the country (up 67% between 2005 and 2008), this problem will only get bigger.
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Transitions Initiative Program Manager
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