Sopheap was born in Cambodia and enslaved into forced begging in Vietnam, then suffered physical abuse at the hands of minders. Children from impoverished families in Cambodia are vulnerable to forced labor, often with the complicity of their families, including in domestic servitude and forced begging or street vending in Thailand and Vietnam.
Until I was six, I lived under the care of my aunty and uncle. During the day they would all go out to work, and then when they came back at night they would always fight because they were tired from working. My aunty was very hard of hearing, and she had a terrible temper. If she could not understand what somebody said, she would just go straight away and beat them. This happened to me – sometimes my aunt and uncle would beat me very severely. My cousins also didn’t like me even though I liked them.
When I was three or four years old my aunty sent me to Vietnam to be a beggar. I went with a lady who my Aunty knew, but I had never met her before. She took me on a motorbike and then a boat. There were other people going to Vietnam with us, and they were all keeping an eye on me. When we got to the river we caught a boat. I knew I was going to beg for money for my aunty. I would go begging for one month at a time, and then I would be allowed to go home again for a few days before my aunty would rent me out to another woman again. She forced me to go and beat me if I refused. I did this three times before I ran away.
When I was begging some people would give me money, but some would look at me angrily or yell at me. My minders told me to say “thank you” and “food, food.” We would sleep outside. The minders would feed us and let us sleep only if we made 30000 dong. If we didn’t, then they wouldn’t let us sleep or eat. This happened a lot. Usually they made me beg at night, and during the day I had to watch the others while they begged to make sure no one ran away. I was responsible for them. If someone disappeared then I would get beaten. Sometimes one of the other children would be mischievous and hide. The first time this happened the minders forgave me, but the next time we couldn’t find a child they beat me badly.
There were many other kids on the street, but only fifteen with me, all Khmer. Because they couldn’t control too many kids, there were lots of “families.” In mine, they were different ages, some older and some my age. They would say I was weak, and that they didn’t need to listen to me, and it didn’t matter if I was tortured. Once the other children were playing even though the woman minder had said we weren’t allowed to play, and I was watching them, but I fell asleep. Then the woman came back and saw us, so she took me to a secret place and beat me very seriously. And the husband minder came back and beat all the other children too. If I earned enough money I could sleep and eat, but they warned us not to try and keep any of it – they would find it and beat us. I would start work begging in the afternoon and into the night. If I got the money quickly I could get some sleep, but I would still have to get up at 4 am to beg again – even if I had made my target.
It was very scary, working at night. I was afraid of being arrested, or sold again, and of having my organs stolen, especially when I had to work late into the night because I didn’t have enough money. I never got any money, but I knew my aunty got money from this woman every month. Once, when she took me home, I saw her give my aunty 100,000 dong. I told my aunty that they beat me and starved me, but she didn’t care. When I told my uncle, he said I should keep quiet or he would beat me. One day I chanced to meet a Cambodian mother who had come to Vietnam with her own child to beg. She felt sorry for me and advised me to start saving money to catch a boat back to Cambodia with her.
So I worked extra hours, not sleeping and going out alone until I had 50,000 dong. I went with the lady, and it cost me 45,000 dong to come back home. When I got back to my village there was no one at my house. A neighbor saw me and said, you mustn’t stay here, they will just keep making you beg, and it is not good. Run to the commune chief’s house; he can help. So I took her advice and went to the commune chief and told him I didn’t want to beg any more or live with my Aunty, but wanted to go live in a shelter. The commune chief helped me.
When my aunty found out, she scolded me. She had not told anybody how she treated me. She asked me to come home, but I refused and finally she agreed to that. Even though she did this to me, nothing has happened to my Aunty or my Uncle. I want to say to the government, please help destitute people before their poverty forces them to leave home to beg or to commit crimes. Please help them from falling into these traps, even if it’s just by giving them advice.
Narrative as told to World Vision International.