Victims of trafficking find hope through education

Transitional care facilities are helping vulnerable children in Poipet get into the classroom and reintegrate into their communities

Lloyd Cristyn Elisabeth
Damnak Toek provides education pathways for vulnerable children to help them reintegrate into their communities
Damnak Toek/2022/Sarah Saunders
27 June 2022

Poipet, Banteay Meanchey Province, June 2022 – Fifteen-year-old Kosal* has a sharp wit and incredible intelligence for his age.

Born with dwarfism into a poor family in Kampong Cham, a province in central Cambodia, he was only 10 years old when his parents sent him to neighbouring Thailand in the hopes he would receive the care that they could not provide for him. They had been tricked by a group of Thai traffickers, who had convinced them that they would look after Kosal as if he were one of their own and even promised to send them money each month. The traffickers wanted to exploit Kosal’s disability, and he ended up begging on the street.

Suffering debilitating abuse until the age of 13, he was eventually arrested by Thai police for begging and was sent to a detention centre to await deportation back to Cambodia.

After arriving back in the country, he was processed through the government-run Poipet Transit Centre (PTC) and the Child Migrant Office (CMO), which is operated by Damnok Toek, an NGO which helps vulnerable children, including victims of trafficking, reintegrate into their communities. Located on the Cambodian border, the facilities provide temporary accommodation as well as medical and psychological care to survivors of trafficking and irregular migrants returning from Thailand, including child deportees unaccompanied by an adult.

Living and learning with Damnok Toek since he was deported from Thailand around two years ago, trafficking victim Kosal now hopes that his new-found love for technology and computers will help him reach university
Damnak Toek/2022/Sarah Saunders
Living and learning with Damnok Toek since he was deported from Thailand around two years ago, trafficking victim Kosal now hopes that his new-found love for technology and computers will help him reach university

Kosal knew he was originally from Kampong Cham province, but could not remember the village, so social workers from the UNICEF-supported Partnership Programme for Protection of Children (3PC) network began the task of locating Kosal’s family in the hopes of reintegrating him with them.

When the social workers found his family, they were homeless, living in extreme poverty and in debt. It was decided that the best course of action for Kosal was a referral to a Transitional Care Facility (TCF) run by Damnok Toek, where he could live and study through their non-formal education (NFE) programme.

Damnok Toek is incorporated by Friends-International, which coordinates the umbrella of thirteen NGOs and 40+ community-based organizations in Cambodia known as 3PC. UNICEF has been partnering with Friends-International and the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY) since 2011 under 3PC to strengthen the child protection system in Cambodia. This network of partners provide support to children and families at risk of or experiencing violence and abuse, living on the street, and most recently those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 3PC partners who work near the border in Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Battambang provinces not only help those seeking to practice safe migration should they choose to relocate, but also those who get repatriated or deported back from Thailand to Cambodia.

“Before coming here my life was a bit difficult,” said Kosal. “I lived in Thailand and when I was brought back to Cambodia, I had never studied, had no place to stay and had nothing to eat. When I came to Damnok Toek, I had a safe space to stay and three meals a day. I could study and I could play with my friends.”

Two children attend non-formal education classes at one of Damnak Toek’s learning centres in Poipet
Damnak Toek/2022/Sarah Saunders
Two children attend non-formal education classes at one of Damnak Toek’s learning centres in Poipet

While all of Cambodia’s provinces can be a source for trafficking, the border city of Poipet is a hub for unsafe, irregular and informal migration, meaning individuals and sometimes even entire families seeking opportunities on the wealthier side are at risk of exploitation and abuse, including forced labour.

Children with disabilities face even heightened risks of exploitation, especially those who come from impoverished backgrounds where the family may struggle to provide appropriate care and are unknowingly deceived by traffickers promising their kids a better life.

The 2015 Walk Free Survey estimated that as many as 250,000 Cambodians live in conditions of modern slavery, and that over 75 per cent of them were victims of labour trafficking. Many were found in the fishing and seafood industries, manufacturing sector or in forced marriages.

UNICEF supports Damnok Toek’s work in Poipet to provide targeted support, including education pathways, to children and youth deported from Thailand. The TCF offers long-term accommodation, meals, education, counselling and other provisions for children under 16 years old for whom family reintegration is not an option. “Many children who live at the TCF have experienced extreme trauma and have had little to no previous education or guidance,” said Nimol Chak, TCF Coordinator at Damnok Toek. “We therefore offer these children an education separate from the NFE programme, instead focussing on accelerated learning and teaching life skills. The road to recovery is different for all children, and Damnok Toek staff take an individualised approach for children living in the TCF to address each child’s needs and potential.”

UNICEF is supporting partners like Damnak Toek to provide vulnerable children access to education as well as to protect them from violence, exploitation and abuse through strengthening case management systems. “We are proud to continue this important work through the strong coordinated efforts of the government and our 3PC partners,” said UNICEF’s Child Protection Specialist Chivith Rottanak. “The financial support from USAID, the Government of Japan, UNICEF Australia and UNICEF Germany has allowed 3PC to address the fundamental needs of children like Kosal while enabling them to receive the quality education they deserve."

Kosal immediately excelled in his classes and after only one year of education in the TCF was able to transfer to the NFE programme to complete Grade 6, the final year of primary school. He continued to come top of his class, so his teacher suggested he apply for a secondary school run by another organization. He was accepted and now studies full-time, even taking extra classes on Saturday mornings for additional practice in the Khmer language and mathematics. 

Through their transitional care facility and non-formal education programmes, Damnok Toek is taking an individualised approach to address each child’s needs and potential
Damnak Toek/2022/Sarah Saunders
Through their transitional care facility and non-formal education programmes, Damnok Toek is taking an individualised approach to address each child’s needs and potential

“My favourite subjects are English and computers,” he said. “I like English conversation classes, and I really like to study computers. I would like to learn more about how to use them.” His current school offers ICT classes for two hours per week, but he regrets that he does not get as much practice as he would like since he does not have access to a computer outside of school.

Despite these limitations, Kosal has big dreams for the future. “I would like to continue to study at university. My first goal is to improve my English because English is needed for all of the computer work I want to do. I would like to design different models of computers and also do programme development. I know I am not a strong man so I think if I have skills to design computers, it will be really good for me.”

* Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved