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Cambodia: Asia Foundation Interview

February 12th, 2008

Marielle Lindstrom, Chief of Party of the Asia Foundation Counter Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) Program, spent time in Moldova and in Turkey working for the International Office for Migration on counter trafficking; she was struck by the difference in methods in Southeast Asia. In eastern Europe there was a lot of organized crime trafficking women for prostitution but in Cambodia there are a myriad of means, from labor for fishing or construction, to child begging gangs, to sex work, to illegal adoption.

“One other difference between Cambodia–southeast Asia–and southeastern Europe is the fact that here we are dealing a lot more with children who are victims of trafficking and exploitation. In southeastern Europe the youngest person that we assisted was around the age of 14. But here in Cambodia, the children are as young as zero, essentially, as they are sold for illegal adoption. And there are many many children in the shelters who are victims of sexual exploitation. That to me is striking. “

“A large part of this is due to the acceptance that life is difficult, life is tough,” Lindstrom said. “Trafficking is not welcomed, but people feel that…what other choices do they have? And so we have families that rent out their children for begging or for work, and they may or may not understand that this actually is trafficking. The children are better off in school and those children, if they don’t attend school, have no economic future.”

“I think it’s been difficult for Cambodia to find its own voice,” Lindstrom said of the international community coming to the Cambodia over the decades. “Although they very much needed and welcomed the aid that came to Cambodia, I find in some instances it’s made them lose their way a little bit. They have accepted the image that has been given to them as victims.”

Working within a memorandum of understanding between USAID and the Cambodian Ministry of the Interior, The Asia Foundation, under Lindstom’s guidance, is the implementing party for a USD $4.5 million CTIP grant by USAID. One of the strategies Lindstrom is using is a national public relations and information campaign.

“The fight against trafficking in Cambodia has been going on for a very very long time,” Lindstrom said. “Most of the messaging, particularly in the beginning, has been negative messaging. ‘Beware of traffickers, you will die, sex with children is a crime.’

“It’s true. They are very valid points. But after more than a decade people become deaf to the message if it doesn’t change. Cambodia has been portrayed as a victim of many many crimes, and exploitations, tragedies, etc. In order for the population to feel that they have any hope for the future, we wanted to go back into what is Khmer, what is a positive Khmer value, and based on that open up a new dialog on trafficking and rejuvenate the anti-trafficking debate. From a different perspective, from a different angle. A more positive one.”

Lindstrom believes she is seeing a change in what is has been typified by many as a bureaucraticaly lethargic and often corrupt government.

“I think now with the change, at least in the anti-trafficking sector, we feel a much stronger voice and commitment to their own priorities and ideas. I’ve seen a complete switch in the government….I think they’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time because they don’t want to be victims anymore.”

And yet, for all the change she is trying to affect within the Cambodian populace, she acknowledges it still comes down to what the international community–the tourists–do when they visit Cambodia.

“I cannot comprehend why people would want to come to Cambodia and continue to exploit this population,” Lindstrom said, with more than a touch of frustration in her voice. “Haven’t they had enough? That’s the first thing. The second thing is that every single tourist that comes to this country should be aware of Child Safe practices. They need to take this responsibility themselves.”

“If they come as tourists to a developing country they need to make sure they are not making this situation worse. That means they should not give to any children any money or any food on the streets because that just creates a culture of dependency. They should look around, for example in Cambodia they have Child Safe and the Friends Network, they should look around for organizations operating in a more sustainable and proactive fashion to stop child sexual exploitation and abuse of children.

“It’s all very well and nice to come to Cambodia, to see this place and to look at the history, etc. but just stay away from the children and do not perpetuate this culture of dependency because the Cambodian government itself doesn’t want to see it.”

At the end of the interview she groaned and, for a moment, buried her head.

“What can you say? We just see the dark side of the world.”

Child Safe Cambodia

Friends International

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