Khmer beggars testing ties and tolerance: Op..we're going home!

The current uncertain situation between Thailand and Cambodia is having a knock-on effect on many of Bangkok's beggars

By: Bangkok Post
On Jan 11, Deputy Prime Minister Maj Gen Sanan Kachornprasart, in a suit, tie and face mask, gave a press conference at the National Immigration Bureau. He was joined by Immigration Bureau Commander Pol Lt Gen Wuthi Liptapallop, also in a face mask; Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) Minister Issara Somchai; and 557 Cambodians, some who had lost their legs, and who were the apparent cause for face masks.
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IN CUSTODY: Cambodians detained following a crackdown on drifters and beggars around the city. PHOTO: APICHART JINAKUL
The officials, standing before the cameras and a table piled high with crutches and prosthetic limbs, claimed the day kicked off their campaign against human trafficking and smuggling gangs.
The 557 Cambodians - a group of 220 men and 337 women, many elderly or severely disabled - were deported as illegal migrants and dumped rather unceremoniously at the border the next day.
The Cambodians were said to be beggars. They had been rounded up in a sweep of Bangkok streets in the four days before the press conference, on the heels of Bangkok Deputy Governor Teerachon Manomaiphibul's declaration that transnational trafficking rings were working on the city's streets and needed to be tackled.
According to news reports that followed the press conference, the operation was spearheaded by the Immigration Bureau and the National Operation Centre on Human Trafficking, who are targeting the traffickers and smugglers that bring beggars to Thailand.
"Beggars disturb foreign tourists and damage the tourism image of Thailand," said Pol Lt Gen Wuthi at the time.
Yet while anti-trafficking was the pretext for the crackdown, Thailand's anti-trafficking policy, which has taken many agencies, many years and many baht to craft, seems to have been summarily dismissed.

ON THEIR WAY HOME: Illegal Cambodian immigrants, who allegedly came to Thailand to beg, at the Immigration Police Bureau after being rounded up in a crackdown on human trafficking. Also seized were a large number of begging ‘props’, including artificial legs. PHOTOS: SOMCHAI POOMLARD
While no one disputes Thailand's right to follow its own immigration laws - indeed hundreds of illegal Cambodian migrants are deported each day - the action troubled a number of observers and organisations that contend the Cambodian beggars were deported in violation of Thailand's own Anti-trafficking in Persons Act, without the screening to identify trafficking victims or individuals entitled to protection.
Cambodian beggars are often vulnerable to trafficking, even if they are not trafficking victims at the time of their migration, and Thailand has a well-established policy to deal with the population more discriminately.
In the days following the deportation, the Mekong Migration Network (MMN), an affiliation of 35 civil organisations in the region, issued a statement protesting against the "deportation of Cambodian beggars without due process", and called for appropriate screening mechanisms and respect for the rights of migrants who should not be treated as criminals.
Weeks after the much publicised round-up, questions remain regarding the handling of the group. Neither the Foundation for Women (FFW) nor Friends International, NGOs with Khmer speakers who usually assist the Immigration Bureau in the screening process, interviewed members in the group of 557. They were uncertain if anyone had. Several UN outfits and a handful of anti-trafficking organisations in Cambodia are also curious, but unaware of the circumstances or whereabouts of the deported group.
The Immigration Bureau declined to comment, or even provide basic statistics regarding the deportation, saying that responding would threaten the integrity of the deported beggars and the reputation of the Immigration Bureau. The MSDHS deferred comment to the immigration authorities, but were not aware of their response, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, two weeks after Spectrum's interview request, were concerned, but "still in the dark" about the situation and awaiting answers from the responsible ministries.
The unusual, high-profile handling of the group, at a time when Thai-Cambodian relations are particularly heated, has led to speculation that the deportation was political theatre.
Regardless of the government's motives, NGO workers who interact with those begging on the streets have noted fears and increasing movement underground among Khmer beggars, who worry they will be mistreated because of the political situation between the two countries.
Observers have also questioned whether the claim that the 557 were beggars is accurate.
Regular surveys of Bangkok's street beggars conducted by the BMA and Friends International every three months consistently show there is a revolving population of 100-200 street children, and 25-50% of these tend to be Khmer. While these numbers only account for children, extrapolation from the figures has led some to doubt there were more than 500 Cambodian beggars to be rounded up in early January. These same people assume the sweep went beyond Bangkok and included non-begging illegal Cambodian migrants.
In the days since the mass deportation, the police have continued their sweep, but following the scrutiny of human rights groups, have been holding the rounded-up beggars at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) - a group of 70 individuals, ranging in age from less than one year to 77.
FFW staff have been allowed access to the group and conduct screening interviews with select women and child beggars. Their testimonies suggested the beggars had come to Thailand voluntarily - and it's impossible to reach a firm conclusion regarding the involvement of traffickers. At the same time, they cautioned that children signalled to each other and gave rehearsed answers to questioning, making it difficult to ascertain whether their answers were accurate. A number of others in the group were unwilling to give testimony, while others were evasive and pretended to not understand, despite the presence of a Khmer translator.
It was also noted that while these vulnerable groups may qualify for social services and a spot in Thailand's government shelters, they may not understand or want them. They often just want a steady income and to return to work, the FFW notes.
For these reasons, and many others, it is difficult to identify trafficking victims, and to ameliorate Thailand's Cambodian beggar issues the FFW suggests DNA tests for parentage, better cooperation between Thai and Cambodian authorities, and more channels to access and assist vulnerable populations.
A "reception and repatriation" process for vulnerable Cambodian migrants has been in place - and in most cases used - since 2005. Sweeps and deportations like last month's were the fashion before then - in 2003, Thaksin Shinawatra famously airlifted 620 beggars back to Cambodia aboard C-130 Hercules transport planes as part of a street-cleaning effort in anticipation of the arrival of George W Bush and the Apec summit.
Under the present system, when beggars are apprehended, they are interviewed by Khmer-speaking staff of the MSDHS or affiliated NGOs who have been trained to identify victims of trafficking. Those that are identified are sent to either Ban Kred Trakarn, the women's shelter, or Ban Phumvet, the men's, where they are provided with various forms of assistance, compensation and support in prosecuting their traffickers.
Those not identified as trafficking victims, but who have been rounded up by the police for the first or sometimes second time, will be sent to the Nonthaburi Reception Home for Destitutes, a shelter where they are interviewed about their migration and provided shelter and vocational training for the several months it takes to ready them for repatriation. In these first instances of begging, Thailand's Bureau of Social Welfare and Cambodia's Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation work together to gather information about the migrants, locating family members and home villages, and creating a repatriation plan.
Beggars who have been rounded up by the police multiple times will be sent to the Immigration Detention Centre and deported. Many social workers and NGO staff comment that this is the preferred fate for most of the beggars, as they waste no time or money cooped up in shelters. They often return to Thailand a few days later.
Indeed, the stream of Cambodian beggars into Bangkok can seem endless; there are children who claim to have been to Thailand on 20 separate occasions to beg. The Thai and Cambodian governments struck a deal in 2008 to better manage the repatriation and the migration of the begging population, but Somjit Tantivanichanon, the Superintendent of the Nonthaburi Reception Home for Destitutes, says the formal process is still slow and lacks the follow-up services to make repatriation effective and permanent.
Since June 2005, the Nonthaburi Reception Home for Destitutes has facilitated 21 formal repatriations for 1,101 vulnerable Cambodian migrants, usually beggars. An additional 1,577 have been deported by the Immigration Bureau.
"They come again and again," says Ms Somjit. She also notes that the work can be especially challenging under the strain of Thailand and Cambodia's tense diplomatic relations; repatriations have been slow and complicated, which at times has led to overcrowding in the shelter. The majority of the residents of the home are Thais who are homeless or have psychiatric problems.
A relative few Cambodian beggars are sent to Ban Kred Trakarn or Ban Pumvet as trafficking victims. Those who are, tend to be children apprehended in Thailand without parents.
Recent research also suggests that most Cambodian beggars are not victims of trafficking. According to a 2006 study by Friends International, an NGO that was founded in Cambodia and now works with street children on multiple continents, most children claim to be begging in Bangkok with a parent who has made the journey voluntarily. About 20% of the children were begging under more dubious circumstances, with a non-blood relative often identified as a family friend.
"It came out very clearly - they may be exploited when they arrive, but they come because they believe they can make much more money here," says Tamo Wagener, international coordinator for Friends International.
The organisation's research shows begging is almost always a more lucrative pursuit for Cambodians than working in their homeland or migrating to Thailand, legally or illegally, for minimum wage work. The same study found that begging works in Thailand - more than 80% of 400 Thais interviewed frequently gave to beggars.
The research also seems to largely debunk the widespread belief that beggars are highly organised networks operated by Cambodian gangs. While Friends International staff said gang-run begging rings may exist to a limited degree - there was some evidence to suggest this is the case for street children selling flowers, sweets and small goods - the overwhelming number of cases they encounter involve Cambodians who come to Bangkok voluntarily to beg. They found beggars enjoy freedom of movement and working hours, and live independently in rented rooms. They also found no evidence that beggars were deliberately mutilated for the purpose of begging.
At the same time, the study suggests migration for begging is often quite strategic and designed to elicit maximum pity and profit. Mothers will often come with only one or two of their youngest children - the large majority of child beggars are under five - disabled adults or the elderly. They will, in exchange for a monthly salary, travel with the child of a relative or family friend.
At the same time, staff at the organisation say the work is by no means lucrative, particularly if beggars get rounded up by police and are put in a shelter for several months. Most earn 100-500 baht per day. "They are not rich families, but poor people that are looking for money," says Mr Wagener.
While their research showed beggars were largely "happy", in another question 80% of child beggars said they did not want to continue begging.
The NGO's staff emphasise beggars are vulnerable. They live in poor conditions, with poor hygiene. While some may have connections in Thailand and a minimum level of protection, they are scared of institutions and authorities. They will often use multiple names or identification details to avoid blacklisting or to confuse immigration officials.
Nong, a street outreach worker for Friends International, once had to escort a Cambodian woman, who was pregnant and bleeding on a Sukhumvit pavement, to a police hospital for help. And she took some convincing.
They all say the Cambodian beggar issue, and finding an end to it, is as challenging and complicated as it is important.
"We don't advise people to give to beggars - these kids don't go to school and their kids will be back on the streets in 15 years," says Mr Wagener.
Friends International's approach is three-pronged and starts in Cambodia, where they attempt to address the root problem of poverty and promote livelihoods and safe migration. They also work in the border area and target families likely to migrate with education and information. Finally, they provide outreach services on Bangkok's streets, to encourage beggars to return home, and in the government shelters, where they assist in preparing beggars for repatriation.
Like Ms Somjit, it's a problem they don't imagine will go away soon. Of the hundreds of beggars they've supported at the Nonthaburi Reception Home for Destitutes, they know of only six who have built stable lives back home.
"No one likes to beg. It's not socially rewarding. But as long as there is lots of money here and few alternatives in Cambodia, they will come," says Chalermrat Chaipraser, Friends International's country programme director.
Like their colleagues at MMN, they don't think round-ups and mass deportations are going to stop them.

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