Bangkok Post: Street sweeps shine a light on Thailand’s begging problem

ON January 11, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Major General 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 Police Lieutenant General 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 were the apparent cause for face masks.

The officials, standing before the cameras and a table piled high with crutches and prosthetic limbs, said 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 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.

According to subsequent news reports, the operation was spearheaded by the Immigration Bureau and the National Operation Centre on Human Trafficking, which are targeting the traffickers and smugglers that bring beggars to Thailand.

“Beggars disturb foreign tourists and damage the tourism image of Thailand,” Wuthi said at the time.

Although an anti-trafficking effort provided the pretext for the crackdown, Thailand’s anti-trafficking policy, which has taken many agencies, many years and many baht to craft, seemed to have been summarily dismissed.

Though 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 say 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, and Thailand has a well-established policy to deal with the population more discriminately.
In the days following the deportation, the Mekong Migration Network, 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, saying they should not be treated as criminals.

Weeks after the much-publicised roundup, questions remain regarding the handling of the group. Neither the Foundation for Women nor Friends International, NGOs with Khmer speakers that usually assist the Immigration Bureau in the screening process, interviewed members in the group of 557. The groups didn’t know whether 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 its own reputation.

The MSDHS deferred comment to the immigration authorities, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed concern but said it was “still in the dark” about the situation.

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 Cambodian beggars, who worry they will be mistreated because of the political situation between the two countries.

In the days since the mass deportation, the police have continued their sweeps. Following the scrutiny of human rights groups, however, they have been holding the rounded-up beggars – a group of 70 individuals ranging in age from less than 1 to 77 – at the immigration detention centre.

The Foundation for Women has been given access to the group and conducted screening interviews with select women and children among the beggars. Their testimony 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 during questioning, making it difficult to ascertain whether their answers were accurate. Some in the group were unwilling to give testimony, and others were evasive and pretended to not understand, despite the presence of a Khmer speaking translator.

It was also noted that although 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 want only a steady income and to return to work, the foundation noted.

For these reasons, and many others, it is difficult to identify trafficking victims.

Handling beggars

To resolve Thailand’s issue with Cambodian beggars, the foundation has suggested DNA tests for parentage, better cooperation between Thai and Cambodian authorities, and more channels to access and assist vulnerable populations.

Under the present system, when beggars are apprehended, they are interviewed by Khmer-speaking staff members of the MSDHS or affiliated NGOs who have been trained to identify victims of trafficking.

Those who 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 members 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.

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 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.

Not trafficked

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 percent 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 that begging in Thailand 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 percent 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.

Though Friends International staffers 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.

Still, the research also found that 80 percent of child beggars did not want to continue begging, and Chalermrat Chaipraser, Friends International’s country programme director, emphasised the importance of identifying alternatives.

“No one likes to beg. It’s not socially rewarding,” he said. “But as long as there is lots of money here and few alternatives in Cambodia, they will come.”