Cambodia: The Waiting

December 22nd, 2008

(Above: Images from the Cambodian border town of Koh Kong.)

It’s getting to be that time of day, when the light comes at an angle and grows softer. The dust in the air gives everything a hazy glow; it’s the kind of orange light I fell in love with when I first came to Phnom Penh nearly two years ago.

Motorbikes and madness fill the street in front of me. Not a chaos of extreme proportion, but a slow-motion mess of near collisions, heavy diesel and horns. If I had a companion at this corner cafe, I’d almost have to shout to be heard. Pollution doesn’t limit itself to the litter of plastic bags pressed into gutters, or the noxious fumes of exhaust and aerosoled excrement. Pollution is also sound. Everywhere, and loud.

My view is one of both romance and realism, of a gauzy tropical afternoon packed with the crush of life in a city growing into a boom. In one stroke I am both endeared and frustrated. There is much beauty in this country, but I sit watching it with faux placidity. I am stewing because the images I need to make are not possible. Not yet.

(above: Local residents walk a dirt track from the nearby fishing town of Koh Kong to their unplumbed, unpowered homes along a route often used by undocumented migrants heading to Thailand. Among them is a retired “facilitator” who showed migrants the path.)

These images are where I was stymied last time I was in Cambodia and it is what I started working on immediately when I arrived in November. I narrowed my scope and went straight to the likely sources, being explicit in my requests and negotiating; I hope I’ve done my best to work around the known roadblocks.

They, in turn, have been very supportive and helpful; in some cases they too are stymied by the viscosity of the Cambodian process. Things here not only work slower, there is a protocol I do not know. For instance, I had an interview with Ith Rady, Under Secretary of State for the Ministry of Justice. He is part of the national anti human trafficking task force, one of the leaders and one of the more outspoken. He explained to the translator he was a little upset because the National Task Force simply called him and said “expect a journalist,” but without any pretext; protocol would have dictated a formal letter, on letterhead, explaining the purpose of the interview and the questions to be asked. A member of the NTF should have accompanied us to make the introductions. Fortunately, I had a skilled translator and just happened to have a name card with me. He warmed up and provided an insightful interview.

The waiting is painful. The thought often crosses my mind; I could be elsewhere, doing other things. But what nags me is the question, am I doing enough? Should I be sitting here watching the traffic pass or should I be out “there” shooting…but shooting what? I am chained to Phnom Penh on the hope that what I need to cover will happen. It will, I’m assured, just not sure when.

I went to Koh Kong in search of some images, but was unable to make them on that trip. I could go to Poipet; it is another town on the border with Thailand where I understand deportations happen daily and with clockwork. This border town has a horrible reputation for swindlers and is about 8 hours away on hairball two-lane highways. Is it a wild goose chase or worth my time?

(above: Bon Oum Von, a 59 year-old plantation worker, at his un-powered, un-plummed home outside of Koh Kong, Cambodia. Von facilitated migrant crossings from 1991-2002; at times the migrants were so poor he wouldn’t charge the approximately $3 USD fee for his help navigating the land mine riddled border crossing.)

I feel I should take a step back here, for I don’t think I’ve addressed the context of this; if an undocumented migrant is identified in Thailand they are taken by Thai authorities to a deportation center at the border and then released into their country of origin. For victims of human trafficking, in Thailand, what is supposed to happen is they are identified by a non-governmental organization (NGO), by the government officials, or they self identify. In these instances they are interviewed to determine their needs and to assist in prosecution of their exploiter, afforded a margin of special treatment, then connected with government services or an NGO in their country of origin where they receive assistance in repatriation and reintegration to their community. In theory, this is what the “high level” working group has established. These parters include members of each government and some of the larger, more policy-focused NGO’s like USAID, IOM, ILO, UNIAP…

From what I’ve been told, the reality is much different. Hurdles to legal migration are too great for the impoverished and uneducated; it’s easier, cheaper and faster to work with a smuggler and become an undocumented migrant. Even with fees migrants say are exacted by some border police and immigration officials, this is easier than it is to apply for a passport and cross through the checkpoint. NGO’s like Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW) do grassroots advocacy work to help educate potential (and current) migrants on legal migration. Similarly, they discuss the pitfalls of undocumented migration.

(above: rural residents read literature and discuss it after a community presentation about legal migration)

Mom Sokchar, a Project Officer for Safe and Legal Migration with LSCW, personally believes governments can reduce human trafficking by encouraging legal migration. This can be done, he said, by reducing the time needed to go through legal channels, by strengthening the security of the border, by developing a government loan system to support migration and by contracting with employers in destination countries to ensure migrants get paid.

“The system is not working,” he said. “They need to respect the humanity. The people are not animals, they deserve respect. The policy exists but is not followed.”

Sokchar then went on to address the instances of deportation in Koh Kong, a Cambodian fishing town on the border with Thailand.

“The Thai should inform Cambodia when they deport people,” he said. “We are Cambodian and we are a member of the Asian community. They need to respect the rights (of the immigrants).”

(above: Mom Sokchar, Project Officer for Safe and Legal Migration with the non-governmental organization Legal Support for Children and Women, in an impoverished community in downtown Koh Kong, on the Cambodian border with Thailand.)

When I was in Koh Kong and crossed the border into Thailand to ask the authorities about this, I was presented with an English speaking border policewoman wearing an apron over her uniform. She informed me there are no undocumented Cambodian migrants in Thailand; some of this may have been lost in the translation, but she told me if migrants are discovered they are sent to the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok and issued temporary passports. She denied that truckloads of deportees are pushed over the border into Cambodia on a regular basis; meanwhile, back on the Cambodian side, the immigration police shrug. They never know when the Thai are going to release deportees, they say, and it makes work difficult for them. Especially for identifying victims of trafficking.

In Koh Kong that leaves NGO’s like the Cambodian Red Cross and Health Care for Children, the only organization running shelters in Koh Kong for men and women trafficking victims, to wait at the border in hopes they can connect with deportees before the traffickers do. Victims are often caught back up in the cycle for reasons which include simply wanting to return to work to pay off their transit debt (what they owe or are told they owe the smuggler), to send what meager wage they can home, or the fear for their lives or their families’ and will go back to work to ensure their safety.

(Above: Mr. Dara and Hour Ny, regional staff for the Cambodian non governmental organization Healthcare Center for Children, work in the rural community of Koh Kong on the border with Thailand to help stop exploitation and human trafficking.)

All of this leaves me with the question: in the next few days I have to go to Bangkok. Do I fly or go by land through Poipet? Will I get the pictures I need to justify the 14 hour bus ride and a full-day layover in Poipet to shoot? Or do I rely on a return trip to Koh Kong?

The latter means I will be able to reconnect with a past undocumented migrant who knows one of the ways across the border. A boat and a trail through old mine fields is requisite. Somewhere along the way I might meet some migrants, but I hope to make it to the border proper where the Khmer army ostensibly guards against Thai incursions (they are having a border dispute further north). I was advised I should wait for Koh Kong; many migrants are at home harvesting the rice crop and won’t return to their jobs in Thailand until mid January.

This complicates my waiting. I am working through an NGO that is well positioned to provide me access to a vital part of this story. However, they too are waiting; waiting on government officials who must negotiate a complex web of politics and economics inherent in anti human trafficking work. I don’t understand how people can do it, how they can sit and wait and wait for the right moment to happen. But they do.

(above: A Thai border guard, seen through barbed wire, watches the arrival station in Thailand near the Cambodian town of Koh Kong.)

A microcosm of this trip is the half a day I spent at the border in Koh Kong, where I feel I might have made one picture. But even that one doesn’t feel very strong. First, three hours getting bounced from one person to the next, for no one wanted to take responsibility for saying “yes.” Saying “no” was easier.

Finally, the station director agreed to see me; initially he said I would need a letter from the provincial governor, but then he backed down and gave me free reign. I went out and immediately started making pictures, in what was now flat midday light, and continued for two hours. Even after an officer with the immigration police said “maybe police not want picture” with a look that said “I don’t care who told you what, don’t make pictures of us.”

(Above: Cambodian Immigration Police watch the border with Thailand near the fishing town of Koh Kong.)

I’m afraid the same thing is going to happen in Poipet, but this time I’m not prepared enough with an NGO contact, a translator, or enough research on this border crossing to hit it quickly in the one day a layover I can afford. Yes, I think I’ve worked it out for myself. Fly to Bangkok. Give up for the moment, tend to other things in life, and come back with the hopes that the groundwork I’ve laid will net the images I hope to make.

It is now well past dark, but the traffic hasn’t lessened one bit. The north Africans have taken their regular table again and random tourists are starting to wandering in for western meals and $0.75 Anchor draft beers. The Asian guy I saw the other night packed up his laptop and left awhile ago. This day has drawn to a close with only an interview to show for it. I have to be in Bangkok on the 26th and, as of today, the 22nd, through the New Year I’m free from Phnom Penh. I’m now 95 percent sure what I’m hoping for will not happen until then.

It’s the waiting. It’s always the waiting. But for me, it’s only for pictures . For the others, there’s a whole lot more they’re struggling and waiting for.

(above: Immigration Police and NGO workers, friends, enjoy beers at the end of the day. As the people on the ground, in the field, they know change will be slow; policy from above may be mandated, but their reality is much different.)

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