Former judge Michael Strong and other Melbourne lawyers visited Cambodia in September to better understand the work of Hagar International in supporting victims of human trafficking and sexual violence.
A child raised in grinding poverty is sold into slavery or repeatedly raped – or both. The community is outraged. Police and child-welfare authorities move swiftly to protect the child. The perpetrator is charged and dealt with by an independent judicial officer.
In Australia, we would expect this to be so. We almost take it for granted. But in impoverished Cambodia, whose rich and ancient heritage stands in stark contrast to its recent violent history, it isn’t so at all. Worse than that, Cambodia is a sex tourism hot spot. Serial child sex offenders prey on their victims with near impunity. Government child protection services are almost nonexistent. Despite the good intentions of many of Cambodia’s leaders, allegations of corruption hover insidiously above the police and the judiciary. Too often, there is no sense of justice being done in Cambodia’s courts. For example, some judicial officers seem ambivalent about whether there is much harm in the prostitution of boys.
It is beyond comprehension to Australians that even the most extreme poverty could explain trafficking one’s children. Yet you really need to see such poverty to begin to understand its impact. Try raising a family on a small raft on a river – with just a flimsy canvas roof between you and the monsoons and no facilities whatsoever.
We spent three days with Hagar’s Australian-led team (96 per cent of Hagar staff in Cambodia are Khmer). Our group included a renowned trauma psychiatrist and a leading psychologist, as well as child protection leaders and lawyers. We were all enormously impressed by what we saw. Hagar seems to have struck the right balance. At the front end it’s about rescue, safety and supportive care. But it’s also about longterm recovery, education, empowerment, sustainability and justice. “Whatever it takes for as long as it takes” is the organisation’s mantra. Many children in Cambodia have no education. At the inspirational Hagar catchup school, five years education is crammed into two.
Hagar also has a social enterprise arm (including the largest commercial catering operation in Phnom Penh) to provide skills training and career opportunities for those in its care, and revenue for its programs. A legal team fights for justice in the courts on behalf of Hagar clients. It’s a comprehensive program. One cannot begin to understand Khmer culture without confronting the genocide. Its immensity cannot be exaggerated. A macabre equivalent would be the slaughter of a quarter of the Australian population in my children’s lifetime. And many of the perpetrators have simply melted back into the community. It is hardly surprising that “civil parties” (victims) have overwhelmed the Cambodian Genocide Tribunal (presided over by former Melbourne lawyer and now international judge Rowan Downing, among others).
Phnom Penh is a bustling Asian city, very definitely on the move – a building site around almost every corner. The population is disproportionately young – for obvious and terrible reasons. Tourists sipping margaritas at the famous Foreign Correspondents Club overlooking the majestic Mekong are probably oblivious to what is often occurring nearby.
Hagar works closely with APLE (action pour les enfants), a French NGO committed to rescuing children from trafficking and paedophiles. In other words, they actually go in and recover the children. There is often no other way. It’s risky and courageous work.
APLE’s presentation to our group was confronting. The behaviour of many of the paedophiles APLE confronts is as brazen as it is evil. They target countries like Cambodia with weak or compromised law enforcement processes. Anecdotal evidence of money talking is far too common to dismiss.
An ever-present cultural impediment to Hagar’s work is the Khmer attitude to women – often repressive, patriarchal and proprietorial. For example, a girl (or young woman) sexually violated has little chance of acceptance, ever, in much of Cambodian society.
Our tour ended on an unforgettable note. We had dinner with a group of Hagar children at a Phnom Penh pizza parlour – their choice. Despite the ordeals that led them to Hagar, they wanted nothing more than to be kids – to laugh and play and sing and enjoy their pizzas. Hagar is providing them with safety, support, education and opportunity but, more than anything else, giving them back their childhood.
MICHAEL STRONG is a former solicitor, barrister, Prosecutor for the Queen, County Court judge and Office of Police Integrity Director. He has a current appointment as an Australian Crime Commission examiner. He was a director of Berry Street Victoria for 16 years, serving two terms as president. He is about to take up an appointment as chairman of the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health.