Friday, August 31, 2012

Refugee Resettlement in Thailand

Welcome to Mae Sot

I can’t seem to get enough of IOM! After finishing my internship with IOM Cambodia, I began a short vacation and decided to visit IOM’s refugee resettlement operations in Thailand. I traveled to the Thai/Myanmar border town of Mae Sot where many refugee organizations set up their operations. 
IOM's refugee resettlement processing center
IOM’s resettlement program in Thailand is extensive. In 2010, IOM resettled approximately 11,829 refugees, most coming from the nine refugee camps along the Thai and Myanmar border.  

IOM has been conducting refugee resettlement in Thailand since 1975 after the Vietnam war. Before, most of the refugees were from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Today, IOM Thailand mostly resettles refugees from Myanmar. Thailand continues to be one of the main countries worldwide for refugee resettlement.

A bedroom for male refugee workers.

To process and resettle the refugees, IOM works closely with the International Rescue Committee, the U.S. Embassy’s Overseas Processing Entity, and UNHCR. It also works with the Royal Thai Government, the UN country team, and the embassies of resettlement countries.
Refugee children.

IOM’s comprehensive operations include medical screening, cultural orientation, and travel arrangements to thirteen resettlement countries. The majority of  refugees resettle in the United States. Other countries for resettlement include Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

The medical screening unit is impressive. Housed on an entire floor of a hospital, doctors conduct tests to check for communicable diseases and to ensure refugees are fit to travel. These procedures are clearly important for the refugees themselves but are also critical to prevent the spread of communicable and serious diseases like tuberculosis. Counseling for those struggling with difficult diseases is also offered.

One of the many medical rooms.
Isolation quarters for refugees with communicable diseases.
In addition, cultural orientations are provided for departing refugees to prepare refugees for successful integration.  There are special curricula for children, families, youth, parents, and single individuals. Basic language courses are also provided.

Flyer on culture in the United States.
Addressing abuse is very important and is covered in trainings.
An IOM document "Resettlement at a Glance - 2011" references an IOM profiling study of Myanmar refugees heading to Canada in 2006. It states, "The greatest hopes of adults were to have opportunities to work and study. The greatest worries were the challenge of learning a new language and assimilating to a new culture. The study showed that both men and women had largely similar concerns. Children had generally high expectations of life in their new country and most hoped to live in a nice house and own a car. "

Children's shoes to distribute pre-departure.
When refugees first arrive in their new countries there is a palpable mixture of hope and fear. The process of leaving a refugee camp and resettling into a foreign country is a difficult and sometimes shocking process. Despite pre-departure trainings, many refugees don't know how to go about daily life in their new cities. In the U.S., I volunteer as a refugee advocate where I help new refugees resettle into my hometown Austin, Texas. I assist in teaching refugees how to cross the road, how to use a toilet, what to do in emergencies, etc. I've actually worked with refugees from Myanmar, of which there are a growing number in Austin.

For this reason, I found it very interesting to visit the pre-departure operations in Mae Sot. I envisioned families I've worked with sitting in the same medical rooms, visiting the same screening officials. I also really enjoyed seeing another side of IOM and I'm amazed by the breadth of IOM's work throughout Southeast Asia.

Note: Although training materials are printed and posted throughout the processing center, many refugees are not literate. The information is fully covered in trainings and the flyers serve as reminders for those that can read.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thank you, IOM!

IOM Cambodia
After two quick months, my internship with IOM has come to an end. Over the summer, I’ve become more familiar with developing proposals, pitching projects to funders, log frames, and even national action plans. I’ve worked on projects related to the provision of psychosocial services for formerly trafficked children,  the reintegration and repatriation of smuggled and trafficked fishers, and, of course, my project on financial services and resources for migrants and their households.  I’ve also become more familiar with the many diverse issues facing migrants in and around Cambodia (and shared with readers on my blog).

My brilliant supervisor
For my project, I conducted research and compiled information from various organizations and stakeholders to develop a proposal to improve formal remittance channels for migrants and provide financial services and trainings for migrants’ households, usually female-headed households. I then assisted in creating proposals implementing both aspects, which I later pitched to funders.

The meeting with the funders went well. Despite their difficult questions, I presented the proposal well and addressed all their concerns. The project was well-received and they’ve now passed the proposal on to their headquarters office for a final approval! I hope my hard work pays off and IOM receives funding to implement what I think will be a great project.

As excited as I am to return to Harvard for my final year, I’m sad to leave my Cambodian home, friends, and coworkers. It's been a great experience. Thank you IOM for a memorable summer! Aur kuhn charan!
Hard at work (with a little posing).

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Protecting Cambodia's Children

As a barang (foreigner), it's common to be bombarded by little children begging and selling small items. Sometimes they are from the city and their families are nearby. Other times, children are sold or orphaned and live and work in the streets. They may be migrants, they may be trafficked (see blog post on TIP Report for Cambodia). Regardless, they are vulnerable and at risk of serious exploitation, such as forced sex work.

Cambodia has gained a reputation for sex tourism and attracts sex tourists and pedophiles. (However, I’m told foreign demand has lessened due to more laws and arrests.) Throughout my stay in the country, I’ve noticed many flyers, pamphlets, and signs in restaurants, bars, hotels, and even in tuk-tuks explaining how to protect children and listing helpful hotlines. I’m impressed with the extensive publicity and awareness campaigns. In addition, the flyers are very informative and helpful. I’ve listed the text from two flyers below. The organization's website can be found here.
Should you notice suspicious behavior towards sexual abuse of children, please report it to:
Police Hotline: 023 997 919
NGO Hotline: 012 311 112/092 311 511

Who are the victims and what consequences do they incur?
Traveling sex offenders generally exploit the most vulnerable in a society. Child victims often come from poor marginalized communities.

Often children who are caught up in prostitution are forced to behave as if they have chosen this work “voluntarily.” Resistance to sexual exploitation is often met with violence; they are often drugged or have previously been abused. Child victims often suffer severe physical and mental trauma. The physical violence involved in sexual exploitation results in injury, pain and fear whilst the acute psychological repercussions of sexual abuse often result in guilt, low self esteem, severe depression and sometimes suicide. Children who are sexually abused and exploited are highly vulnerable to infection with HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases.

What else you can do?
At Home:
  • Ask your travel agent whether they have signed the “Code for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism.”
 In Cambodia:
Sexual exploitation of children is a crime in Cambodia. Cambodia has appropriate laws to prosecute child sex offenders. Offenders convicted of sexual abuse of children also face deportation and punishment in their own countries.

According to statistics from Department of Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection, from 2007 to present, 798 suspects have been arrested and 322 offenders have been prosecuted.

 * * *
ChildSafe Traveler Tips
7 Better Ways to Protect Children in Cambodia

There are approximately 14,000 to 24,000 street children living in Cambodia. In the capital of Phnom Penh, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 children living and/or working on the streets. In Siem Reap and around the Angkor Temples 1,500 children live and work on the streets and nearly 1,000 children live and work on the streets and beaches of Sihanoukville.

All these children are at great risk of being abused and often travelers unwillingly and unknowingly increase their vulnerability. Do your part and follow these ChildSafe tips.

#1 – Support ChildSafe Network members
Mototaxis, tuktuks, hotels/guest-houses, restaurants, internet cafes, tour operators and others have been trained to protect children from abusive situations.

#2 – Think twice before buying anything from children on the street, beaches or at temples and refrain from giving money to begging children or parents with infants.
It keeps them on the street and places them at risk. If you really want to help, please don’t give directly to children. Instead, find and support services that help these children have a better future.

#3 – Purchase ChildSafe Certified Products to support vulnerable children and their families.
This is an effective alternative to giving money directly to children. ChildSafe Certified Products are made by parents so children can go back to school or so they are made by former street youth in training so they can find employment.

#4 – Be aware of the dangers of orphanage tourism.
A lot of orphanages in Cambodia do not have child-protection policies in place to ensure the safety and well-being of the children in their care. Allowing visitors to have direct contact with children can place children at risk, especially when visitors are unsupervised. Good organizations have policies in place to protect children and should not allow visitors to just drop in and have access to the children.

#5 – Taking children back to your hotel room for any reason is not a good idea and can get you in trouble with authorities.
If you want to help a child in need, refer them to local social workers.

#6 – Avoid places that tolerate prostitution.
According to UNICEF, 30 to 35 percent of all sex workers in the Mekong sub-region are between 12 and 17 years of age. By going to places that tolerate prostitution, you are supporting an environment that places children at risk.

#7 – Keep your eyes wide open. If you see a child in danger, inform the local authorities or call the nationwide police hotline or city hotlines.

There are many organizations collaborating to end exploitation, abuse, and sex trafficking of minors under the age of 18. Friends International works to improve the lives of Cambodian youth, including many of the street children that sell or beg. ECPAT is a large and well-known network tackling child abuse and exploitation. In addition, Chab dai is a Christian network of NGOs in Cambodia working to end sexual abuse and trafficking. I met with one of their members, Love146, to learn more about their efforts to protect at-risk children in Cambodia.

Regarding sex with minors, it seems many of the efforts of these organizations are aimed at foreigners buying sex from young children. I can't help but wonder what is being done with Cambodian buyers of sex. 67% of buyers of sex with Cambodian women and girls are Cambodian men. I know from my Cambodian friends that visiting a karaoke bar or brothel is a common way for Cambodian men to bond and to feel masculine. Many Cambodian men also seek sex with virgins, either for pleasure or due to the myth that sex with virgins cures HIV/AIDS and brings strength and vitality. It's estimated that 85% of men who buy sex with virgins in Cambodia are Asian men.

There is a lot being done by many active NGOs as well as the Cambodian government. Targeting culture and pervasive myths is difficult, and the interconnection between legalized sex work/prostitution and underage prostitution/trafficking/exploitation of minors can become quite complicated. In addition, alleviating poverty to prevent children from working on the streets and risking exploitation is not simple. However, more can and needs to be done. I'm in the process of developing ideas with local NGOs to target local demand for sex with minors. Any ideas are welcome!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Righting Past Wrongs: The Khmer Rouge Trials

When people think of Cambodia they often think of the brutal genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge (Communist Party of Kampuchea) ruled the nation aiming to safeguard it from threatening foreign countries and socially engineer Cambodia into an agrarian society. However, it resulted in grueling livelihoods and a horrific genocide.

Cambodians have gone on with their lives and the Khmer Rouge is no longer regularly discussed. Still, the fall of the regime was only 33 years ago and older Cambodians still have vivid memories of the Khmer Rouge. Over time, people have opened up to me and shared their memories of that time, remembering those they've lost. It's these stories that I find particularly fascinating and a true look into how Cambodian history has shaped the country and its people today.

Eager to share his stories, one friend stated that as a young child during the regime he watched over others in the children's center. His mother was assigned to produce clothing. Meanwhile, his brother, brother-in-law, and father were all killed. Another younger friend doesn't have his own memories of the regime, but explained how lucky his family was to survive because his father was involved in the army and therefore a target of the Khmer Rouge. A different friend refuses to recall or think about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. For her, the memories are still painful and her murdered loved ones are still deeply missed.

Similarly, Cambodians' reactions are mixed about the current United Nations trials of the Khmer Rouge. Although the head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot ("Brother Number One"), has already passed away, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) aims to try the leaders of the regime to right past wrongs and bring justice to the Cambodian people. Some Cambodians feel justice must be served; others want to stop dwelling on the past and move on. Some simply don't believe the trials are worth conducting, either because the leaders were understandably attempting to save their country or because it's not worth the time and money to convict elderly individuals for crimes they committed long ago. Cautiously, others speak of the leaders involved in the Khmer Rouge that are currently in government positions but will never be tried.

The final verdict of the first case, leader "Duch" (Kaing Guek Eav), sentenced him to life in prison. The ECCC is now trying Nuon Chea (also referred to as "Brother Number Two"), Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary. Due to health issues, Ieng Thirith will be tried later.

Despite the widespread acknowledgement of their participation in the atrocities, the alleged leaders deserve a fair trial to determine appropriate sentences. My good friends and housemates serve the role of defense lawyers for Nuon Chea and invited me to the Court to watch the questioning of their latest witness, professor and author David Chandler. The court is open to the public, and I joined many Cambodians and some foreigners in watching the questioning.

The Court (Photo Credit:
Nuon Chea himself asked Chandler two questions regarding the birth of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and CPK's close relationship with Vietnam's Communist Movement. Defense lawyers also questioned Chandler on the official structure of CPK and the ruling structure in places like S-21, the prison and interrogation center where 17,000 people were detained and tortured. Chandler was asked to explain the party structure in comparison to the Nazi top-down model, and the role of subordinates in the system, their role in killings, and whether enough research has been done on lower-level responsibility in the Khmer Rouge. In addition, Chandler was questioned on the culling, tampering, and destroying of party documents by the People's Republic of Kampuchea and Vietnamese officials, as well as whether events and politics since the regime have influenced the way we look at facts.

Witness David Chandler (Photo Credit:

Exploring the food, the language, and the culture of a new environment is interesting enough. However, for me, learning about a country's history and how it has shaped its current culture only adds to the experience. Watching the trial firsthand and listening to the very real stories of my friends provided a truly unique insight into Cambodia.

If you're interested in learning more about Cambodia's history:
I'm beginning to read Sideshow by William Shawcross on the United States' secret bombing of Cambodia. Also, I'm told there is a powerful documentary - "Enemies of the People" - that features a series of frank interviews between local Cambodian Thet Sambath and Nuon Chea. Over the course of three years, he shares his views of the Khmer Rouge and his own involvement in the regime.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Urban Migration and the Rights of Garment Factory Workers

Since my last blog post, I’ve met with several additional migration experts and financial service providers in the hopes of improving financial resources for Cambodian migrants. Next week, I will meet with funders to pitch and discuss a draft proposal on potential projects.

While constructing the proposal, I’ve continued attending various meetings on topics ranging from labor migration to gender-based violence. I’m also assisting with a variety of IOM projects, giving me the opportunity to learn about many different migration issues in Cambodia. While my focus is largely on transnational migration, I was surprised to find that 35% of Cambodians are internal migrants, an increase from 1998 when 31% of the population were internal migrants.

Crowd of factory workers en route (Photo Credit: BBC)
There are a variety of pull factors, including urban-industrial growth. A significant pull is the garment industry, with factories located in and around Phnom Penh. There are more than 300 factories and approximately 350,000 employees. 90% of Cambodia’s garment industry workers are women with an average age of 24 years.” Even women from Vietnam migrate to work in these factories.

The garment industry is the largest exporter earner for Cambodia and is known for its labor standards, which include a minimum wage guarantee, a limit on work hours, and the right to unions. The Labour Law also forbids the use of underage workers and even allows nursing mothers to right to breastfeeding breaks.

Garment factory (Photo Credit: Southeast Asia Weekly)
Despite these labor rights, workers do not have access to retirement benefits or insurance if they fall ill. In addition, there are many reports of factory workers fainting on the job. Workers live together in tight quarters and pay for their room, electricity, and water. Though minimum wages of $61 USD a month are guaranteed, workers report they have very little left for food and to live on. In a BBC article, garment factory worker Sok Asry stated, “It’s difficult for me to afford food and rent for a place to live.” The article also shares that the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which promotes fair pay throughout Asia, states a living wage for an average Cambodian garment factory worker would be $281 USD per month, a stark increase from current wages.

Factory Workers (Photo Credit: Business News Cambodia)
But with wages that high companies would likely move their factories to other countries to keep costs in check. A few years ago, when the recession hit, factories were closed and it’s said that many of the workers desperate for an income turned to prostitution. The women, often young and single, “need money to support their families, thus they may be more prone to engage in sex work, either formally or informally, with a partner who would support them,” according to a study referenced by UN Women.

To keep factories open while paying a higher wage, companies would be inclined to charge more for their products. A PBS article then presses the question: Are consumers willing to pay more?
Worker faints and is carried to ambulance (Photo Credit: The Guardian; Samrang Pring/Reuters)
Even with an increase in wages, this doesn’t address the critical issue of factory workers fainting. Just a month ago, the International Labour Organization program Better Factories Cambodia (ILO-BFC) released its 28th Synthesis Report on Working Conditions in Cambodia’s Garment Sector covering factories’ compliance with legal and labor standards. The report analyzed 136 of the 320 factories registered with the program during a six month period, from November 2011 through April 2012. Its findings show an increase in factories paying attendance and health bonuses as well as other mandatory wage supplements. However, there are decreases in compliance in other areas, such as payment for maternity leave benefits. The BFC Project Advisory Committee (comprised of the Royal Government of Cambodia, Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, and trade unions) stated there is lack of improvement in areas causing fainting, with compliance in these areas still below 50%. Potential reasons for fainting may include “poor worker nutrition, excessive overtime, high heat levels, poor ventilation, and mass psychogenic illness (MPI).” Among the many campaigns targeting factory fainting and labor rights, ILO-BFC has just launched its One Change Campaign to urge factories to make at least one change to improve factory conditions. 

In the meantime, it seems there is less interest in factory worker positions. Recently, 50,000 vacant positions remained unfilled. It is speculated that young workers are increasingly looking to migrate to other countries for employment.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Human Trafficking in Cambodia: A Review of the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report

“I urge all Americans to educate themselves about all forms of modern slavery and the signs and consequences of human trafficking. Together, and in cooperation with our partners around the world, we can work to end this terrible injustice and protect the rights to life and liberty entrusted to us by our forebears and owed to our children.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, December 30, 2011
Human trafficking is a global problem and a significant issue in Cambodia. During my time in Cambodia, I previously volunteered with a local nonprofit and listened to and documented the stories of child workers. Sold into labor at a young age, a sobbing teenager shared with me that her family was too poor to feed her, much less send her to school. She was forced to work in Thailand, endured brutal beatings and an attempted rape by her owner, and survived only through hard labor. Traumatized, she remained fearful despite her safety with the organization and often suffered nightmares in which she was again abused. Unfortunately, her story resembled the experiences of other youth in the shelter and undoubtedly many more within and around Cambodia.

International laws and treaties have prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Palermo Protocol. Governments have signed on and also devised and enacted their own laws. However, trafficking and modern-day slavery persist. It is estimated that 27 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates 55% of forced labor victims are women and girls, and 98% are sex trafficking victims. The “Asia and the Pacific” region hosts the most victims.

In late June, the US Department of State released its 12th annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The Report ranks countries by their efforts to end trafficking based on the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) standards. Efforts include ensuring victims of trafficking are identified and provided adequate protection by the government and law enforcement. The extensive TIP Report covers the 3 Ps – Prosecution, Protection, and Prevention – for each country, and categorizes countries into four tiers based on the TVPA’s minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.
Tier 1
Countries whose governments fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
Tier 2
Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.
Tier 2 Watch List
Countries where governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards, and whose:
a) the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing;
b) there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year, including increased investigations, prosecution, and convictions of trafficking crimes, increased assistance to victims, and decreasing evidence of complicity in severe forms of trafficking by government officials; or
c) the determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional steps over the next year.
Tier 3
Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards are not making significant efforts to do so.
Cambodia is currently listed as a Tier 2 country. The tiers for Cambodian neighboring and migrant destination countries are: Malaysia - Tier 2 Watch List; Thailand - Tier 2 Watch List; Vietnam - Tier 2; and Indonesia - Tier 2.
The TIP Report states that Cambodian migrant workers are still vulnerable to forced labor and debt bondage, especially in Malaysia. Employers often withhold migrants’ contracts and identification materials, and risks are increased when migrants are unable to read contracts or pay fees. The most vulnerable migrants continue to be children. Cambodian children may be sold by parents into forced labor, domestic servitude, the sex trade, and begging in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The International Organization for Migration, as well as many NGOs and agencies like UN Women, SISHA, and ECPAT, are working to improve policies and services for victims. As an IOM intern, I was able to attend a counter-trafficking stakeholder meeting where representatives from anti-trafficking organizations across Cambodia were in attendance. Government authorities, police officials, and many NGO and IGO staff discussed different aspects of human trafficking. These quarterly meetings allow organizations to collaborate and build off each other's expertise. Reports and presentations are shared to provide new and relevant information to all stakeholders. At this meeting, psychosocial services were also discussed in detail, a subject I'm very familiar with as a social worker. It was fascinating to hear about services and resources in the Cambodian context, and I hope to continue learning more about Cambodian anti-trafficking policies and enforcement, whether the situation has improved, and future steps to combat trafficking.

For a great visual of the Trafficking In Persons Report, click here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Researching Remittances

Moto traffic in Phnom Penh

After a long journey, I finally arrived in Phnom Penh. There are some new restaurants, buildings, and bars, but overall it feels the same. The sounds of Khmer, the smells of fish, and an abundance of motorcycles and tuk-tuks are everywhere.

So far, my internship with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is everything I had hoped for. I work with a dedicated and knowledgeable team tackling a wide variety of migration issues, including trafficking, smuggling, and ensuring the rights and basic needs of migrants. 

My project is to assess and design a system improving the remittance process for Cambodian migrants working abroad. A “remittance” is the transfer of money from one location to another and usually refers to a worker sending money home to their family or relatives. Remittances are a critical source of income for households in Cambodia. A 2006 case study conducted by the World Bank documented that in Cambodia’s Prey Veng province 91% of households reported remittances to be fundamental for economic survival.

There are several remittance channels but only informal channels are available for undocumented migrants, which comprise the majority of cross-country migrants. Unfortunately, commercial banks are not an option as they don’t work with individuals without proper identification or with small amounts of funds, and regulations restrict microfinance agencies from financial transactions across borders. Informal transfers often utilize moneylenders as middlemen and result in costly fees. The World Bank study approximated that transaction costs could be as high as 30% in rural areas. 

­­Statistically, remittances tend to vary based on gender, marriage status, and age. The International Labor Organization (ILO) found that women often send more money home despite earning less than men. Women also remain less likely to receive proper documentation and permits when working abroad.
Migrant Worker (Photo Credit: IOM)
Cambodian migrants often relocate to Thailand, Malaysia, or South Korea, with the majority of migrants in neighboring Thailand. Though research on remittances is limited due to its often informal nature, studies show workers in Thailand send home between $50-300 USD each year to their families. In a 2009 study, the ILO reported only 8% of Cambodian migrants owned bank accounts in Thailand, which implies most migrants used informal methods for remittances. 

Over the past two weeks, I've been gathering information on remittance channels and assessing what has been and is currently being done by banks, microfinance agencies, NGOs, and international organizations. I've learned a tremendous amount through meeting with the bank ANZ, the International Finance Corporation (a member of the World Bank Group), a few microfinance agencies, UN Women, ILO, and WING (a mobile phone payment company). There are several potential remittance channels, including mobile banking or partnering with NGOs in both Cambodia and destination countries like Thailand. Hopefully, the project will continue taking shape and we can develop a new financially-effective remittance process for Cambodian migrants.