Anette Wig writes about her experience of scam artists in Cambodia
“I don’t want your money, I just need milk”. The girl, who I would guess was 8 years old, was standing barefoot way inside my personal space, which made it easy for me to note her smelly hair and dirty face. Her eyes caught mine as she said, “Please kind lady, I just want milk for my brother.” The tiny baby boy was tied on top of her chest with the help of a krama, the traditional Cambodian scarf. Although the baby was only skin and bones, it looked heavy for such a gaunt girl. She ran her hand up to her face, closed her eyes, and pressed her thumb and index fingers against her eyelids, a gesture telling me that tears were pressing their way out her tear channels. “Please,” she whispered. I looked around. I don’t know whether I did this in a search for someone giving me a nod confirming my thoughts, I need to help her, or if it was a reflective attempt to look for her parents. We were in the middle of the busiest street in Siem Reap, famously called Pub Street. This is where, every night of the week, you find tourists tired from spending the whole day walking around the Angkor Wat temples, but not too tired to have a drink or seven. People around us were moving slowly, out of synch with the loud music bustling from the different bars and nightclubs clustered together like two centipedes on each side of the street. Their naked shoulders and legs reflecting days spent in a sun that was too powerful for their pale January-skin to handle. Their eyes were seeking the nicest spot for people-watching and the cheapest drinks (although no bars go above $1 for a pint). No one paid any attention to us. The girl, who by now was probably becoming impatient, took my hand and said, “Come, kind lady.” I had read somewhere that I should not give money to beggars; that much I knew. But this wasn’t the same as begging for money, right? This was simply a young girl in a desperate search for someone to be kind enough to get her younger brother some baby milk formula. I took another look at the baby. He seemed to be jumping in and out of sleep every other second. Too weak to function. After all, I was in Cambodia to volunteer – to do some good. With her tiny hand, she led me into a small mart nearby. Her voice was low but determined when she said, “No, lady, not that one” as I reached for one of the cans of formula, “The other one. The big one.” I did as she said. Right after handing her the shopping bag containing the box with the same worth as 19 beers, she placed her hands together in front of her face and said awkorn. Thank you. Then she took off. Instantly.
“Don’t try to change Cambodia before you let Cambodia change you,” I was told as I arrived my new temporary home in South-East Asia to volunteer at the age of 19, four years ago. Back then, I had a strong idea that I was going to change lives. But how could I possibly do that when I had no knowledge nor understanding of the networks that operated in the region that would exploit the good intentions of foreigners, like myself? Little did I know that 19 dollars’ worth of baby milk formula would keep the boy hungry. That instead of feeding the stomach of the baby, I would feed the pockets of cartel men. That within five minutes, from the moment she approached me to the second she left me feeling satisfied with my good deed, I would be an involuntary supporter of child trafficking.
“Often, scammers are deliberately going into poor villages to convince parents into giving up their children for the benefit of ‘the milk scam.”
It happened on my second day in Cambodia. A week later I attended a workshop ‘Child Protection Training for Volunteers Working in Cambodia’. There, I learned that I had fallen victim of the widespread cartel-run milk scam. What actually happened is the following: The girl chooses an easy target – a very white and naïve-looking tourist, begs her for milk, and gets it. What she then does is to take off, wait for a few minutes, and go back to the store. In return for the can, she gets most of the money back, and the store keeps some of it. After this, she goes outside and gives most of the remaining money to the man waiting at the corner. The police man on the other side of the street knows what is going on, but he has been paid to not react. The girl herself gets to keep a tiny share of the money, only enough to encourage her parents to keep her out of school. To make it all more compelling, the child is handed a skinny baby, which is often drugged to make it fall asleep and seem weak. The skinnier the baby is, the better. It might be a sibling. In most instances, this is a baby bought and brought from the countryside. Many parents are persuaded into giving up their children in the hope that they might be better off in the city, where they will live under the ‘protection’ of a rich ‘businessman.’ Often, scammers are deliberately going into poor villages to convince parents into giving up their children for the benefit of ‘the milk scam.’ What is more, in Cambodia, the number of orphanages has skyrocketed in recent years – not in proportion to the number of orphans, but directly reflecting the increase in tourism. Three out of four children living in orphanages have at least one living parent, where the parent has been in a situation of absolute poverty, essentially leaving them with no alternative than to place their child into a care home. For some, this is the only way to ensure that they get an education and provision of essentials. Not surprisingly, many orphanages are deliberately kept in horrible conditions so that tourists and volunteers will donate more money.
“Good intentions are simply not enough.”
Do your homework before choosing an organization, and also before choosing to volunteer abroad. Does the organization think and act in sustainable and responsible manners? Is the organization contributing to furthering aid dependence in the area it works, or is it committed to empowering the local people and facilitating (sustainable) use of local resources? Is the organization well-respected in the local community, and is it truly providing the services that are needed to the people that it aims to help? What are the promoted objectives of the organization; do they sound pragmatic and realistic, or do they seem too good to be true? What is the funding platform for the organization; will they depend on your personal monetary contribution? Does the organization have formal/informal criteria when assessing potential volunteers; can anyone come and work for them, regardless of their skillset (or lack thereof)? Are you intending to readily dedicate the time and effort that is in demand for the project in question, or are you primarily concerned with boosting your own CV? And remember, try to adjust to the circumstances and become aware of the local traditions and customs. Gain a cultural understanding of the area you intend to help before trying to change it. You are the one responsible for fitting in – not the locals. Good intentions are simply not enough. Before you travel, just read that stupid travel guide, and realize that cultural sensitivity is important. If done responsibly, volunteering can be beneficial for both the provider and the recipient.
Originally feautred in Rebel Issue 1.