Poipet is a town built on luck—good and bad. This casino bordertown is a mecca for the Thai and Chinese gamblers who are drawn to this dusty outpost on the edge of Cambodia and Thailand to try their luck in one of Poipet's eight casinos. But it's also a draw for the thousands of poor Cambodian families who move from the rural countryside to eke out a living in what is the most cashed-up city in the area.
"Living in Poipet is easier than living back home," explained a woman who was working alongside her young children. "There is more opportunity here. Even though I'm uneducated, there are different kinds of jobs I can do… construction work, pulling a cart, cleaning fish, carrying packages, smuggling goods… or helping out in a shop."
This interview was provided by Damnok Toek, a local NGO that assists families and children in Cambodia, who was more than a bit wary of journalists poking around the city looking for a story. The NGO asked me to keep her name anonymous, because she lived in a precarious situation where even publishing her name could be dangerous for her or her children.
"My family has not enough food, I have to pay for house renting, fire and water payments," she said. "My family has disease and I saw that my neighbors can earn money with their children working on the street too.”
Later, I saw a small child, she couldn't have been older than eight or nine, reach deep into a trash bag on a dark, litter-strewn road near the border. She was fishing around for anything of value, a bottle, or a can. Maybe something metal that she could recycle. The bottom of the bag tore open, spilling foul trash juice into the street. The young girl stooped low and inspected the tear. Finding nothing she moved on to another pile of garbage, another chance to find something valuable buried amongst the filth.
Scenes like this are uncomfortably common in Poipet, and over the Thai border in nearby Aranyaprathet as well. There are at least 600 children living in the streets of the bordertown, according to estimates by NGOs.
The border zone can be a dangerous place, especially for children, who are routinely exploited, and exposed to a range of trauma and abuse by being forced to work on the streets.
Most are sent out into the city as scavengers, searching the streets for trash. They are often part of larger migrant families, the ones who moved to Poipet for the same reason the gamblers crowd out the casinos—a chance to turn their fortunes around. But while the situation might be better than the realities of farm labor, it's not enough for them to rise out of poverty.
This puts children out on the streets, where they face a long list of potential dangers, from physical and sexual abuse to human trafficking. According to a study conducted by Up! International and Damnok Toek, at least 66 percent of children reported being physically assaulted at least once while out on the streets.
Sexual abuse is also shockingly common, with some children turning to sex work to make ends meet. Many children turn to drugs, especially meth and toxic glue, to cope, explained Nathalie Nguyen, a project manager at Damnok Toek. The NGO surveyed 80 children living on the border, and found that most admitted to using drugs the first time when they were 10 years old.
Forty percent of them admitted to using inhalants, like glue, regularly, and for some, crystal methamphetamine. Substance abuse in Poipet almost exclusively affects boys, who are also four times more likely than girls to say they've been victims of physical violence or sexual abuse.
“The use of drugs, specifically ice and glue has become a problem in Cambodia,” Nguyen said. “Methamphetamine used to be imported from Myanmar and Thailand, but it has been four or five years since Cambodians started to produce it themselves.”
But a lot of the local drug manufacturers haven't perfected this process and, as a result, there's been a dramatic rise in accidental poisonings due to the inclusion of deadly adulterants.
“It is not only a drug, but also a poison,” Nguyen said.
And, in many ways, addiction opens the door to even more abuse. Children who use drugs are far more likely to be assaulted by local gangs, and the police, explained Jarrett Davis, a social researcher working in the region.
"Street-involved youth, particularly those who use drugs, are commonly stigmatized as being ‘bad kids’ and even thought of as a nuisance or lost cause,” Davis said. “There is often notably less empathy given toward those who use drugs in comparison to those who are just working on the streets.”
A few days later, I came across the same girl I saw digging deep into some black bags outside the Crown Casino, one of the biggest, and best funded, attractions in Poipet. She was dressed in the same clothes, the ragged shirt hanging loose on her skinny frame. She wore an oversized red hat that kept falling down when she stooped over to pick through the garbage, placing the most-valuable stuff in a sack slung over her shoulder. Her face was black with grime and I knew that she would probably be working through the night.
There's a sadness to Poipet, the kind that's hard to ignore when you see the sheer number of children in the streets. It's a town on the border, a trade city that straddles cultures, economies, and nations. It's a place that's fortunes are built on its openness. But for the children who roam its streets, it's almost the opposite—a place where everyone else is passing through, but they can't leave.