"I want to work in Korea", he said.
We were standing along a dusty road lined with wooden homes and plots of dried rice stalks, dormant until the next rainy season, loosely called a village. The nearest town was a cluster of businesses along the highway a kilometer away. He was a farmer's son, maybe fifteen, who had probably never traveled further than Phnom Penh, two hours up the highway. Korea seemed another world away.
But it wasn't surprising, not at all. I neither doubted his intention nor the possibility he might go. He probably already had a connection who could make it happen.
In rural Cambodia, and in the slums of the major cities, you can bet every young person is thinking about a way to make his or her fortune and choosing from options such as: go to a university and get an office job, work in a factory, become a famous singer, become a hairdresser, or take a chance in another country.
Most choose the factory; it's most accessible and anybody can do it. But factory work is exhausting and hardly pays a living wage. It's a way to survive and not much more.
Enter the recruiters.
The recruiters are people who show up in the village talking about opportunities: a dream job in Phnom Penh, a "good" company in Thailand, Malaysia, or Korea that pays five or ten times the wages of factories in Cambodia, or a rich and generous family looking for a domestic worker.
These recruiters, who hold out these visions, are often relatives or "friends" living in the community, and there is a seed of truth in what they say. Indeed, many Cambodians have changed their lives by working abroad or by connecting with a generous employer.
One of our Alongsider leaders, mentioned in a previous post, took a job as a domestic worker in Malaysia as a teenager. She was employed by a family who treated her well, and she saved enough money to buy her family a house when she returned.
But in hundreds of cases, Cambodians who respond to these great "opportunities" are exploited: passports confiscated, paychecks withheld, yelled at and beaten, and forced to work brutally long hours.
Another Alongsider has a different story. When she went to Malaysia her passport was taken and she was forced to work twenty hours a day, seven days per week as a seamstress at a factory.
And worse things than that happen.
The UN reports that most Cambodian children who are officially repatriated from Thailand and Vietnam have been forced to beg and sell things on the streets. Within Cambodia, many young children and youth are sold or tricked into lives of sexual exploitation.
Where does Alongsiders come in? Truth is, we are well situated to prevent trafficking of the children whose lives we touch.
Most organizations working to prevent human trafficking are waging educational campaigns: making videos and other media, distributing written materials, and sending speakers to schools. Or they are rescuing people who are already victims.
These are all important activities, but let's be honest about the shortcomings. Research shows that most human trafficking victims in Cambodia come from specific places: isolated rural areas in Kampong Cham, Prey Veng, Kandal, Takeo, and Battambang and urban slums in Phnom Penh. And in those places, most victims of human trafficking are less than sixteen years old.
But the educational campaigns originate from Phnom Penh and other cities where organizations keep their offices, and if they connect with likely victims, it's from a distance and indirectly. Even so, how many fifteen year old youth make decisions based on what they read or because of what far away adults are saying?
Alongsiders aren't touching thousands - not yet - but we have active groups in most of the vulnerable provinces listed above, and also in Phnom Penh slums. Alongsiders live in those communities, and every Alongsider connects with a little brother or sister, who is less than sixteen years old, and builds a trusting relationship.
As a previous post explains, we take concrete steps to train our leaders to prevent abuse and human trafficking. But it's not just tactics that make a difference, it's the power of relationships.
What makes children most vulnerable to human trafficking is, first of all, their real and imagined insecurities and needs, and yet it's even more than that. It's also about being unnoticed and unconnected.
It's much harder to traffic a child who has someone watching him or her; to take advantage of a child who has a true advocate; or to trick a child who is connected to a network of people who talk to each other.
That fifteen year old boy with a plan to work in Korea is standing on the verge of a precipice, or it may be a launch pad.
Who is he connected to?