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Swiss backpackers help Cambodian street children

Goutte d'eau provides shelter for Cambodian children

(Keystone Archive)

Six years ago a group of eight Swiss who backpacked around the world as young adults decided to return to Cambodia to help street children and stop child trafficking. Today their organisation, "Goutte d'eau" (Drop of Water), is thriving and has an annual budget of close to SFr500,000.

"Our focus is to reintegrate street children into Cambodian society. We take care of 800 children each day," Christof Jakob, one of the founding members of Goutte d'eau, told swissinfo.

He said years of conflict had left Cambodia with a devastated landscape and economy, and had destroyed the fabric of community and family life.

"There's no sense of community or solidarity today so the children, who are the weakest part of society, are the ones who are the most hurt and they very often land up on the street or being trafficked to other countries," he said.

Goutte d'eau provides shelter to about 200 street children in rural areas. Jakob said they try to provide an alternative to young people who are tempted to go to the big cities like Phnom Penh in search of a better life.

The organisation has set up three medical centres which provide care to 150 children each day, as well as schools and vocational training for about 500 youngsters.

The three centres are located in Neak Loeung and Poipet, although the administrative centre, which is staffed by volunteers, is in Bern.

Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the region, and Jakob says that destitute parents are often reduced to selling their children.

"Many people cannot survive on their farms and so parents turn to selling their children, who are then trafficked to Thailand or other Asian countries to beg or to work in factories or as prostitutes," he continued.

Goutte d'eau estimates that around 400-500 children from one border town alone disappear each month to Thailand.

The organisation works in collaboration with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) as well as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to bring the children back to Cambodia.

They are able to repatriate between 40 and 50 children a month "and then we re-integrate them, if possible, with their families - making sure the child will not be sold again," Jakob said.

Goutte d'eau works in Thai prisons to locate children who are sent there when caught working illegally in the country. "Along with the IOM, we offer all unaccompanied children the chance to come back to Cambodia with us."

Most of Goutte d'eau's financing comes from private donors in Switzerland, Germany and France. UNICEF, IOM and other big organisations also provide money.

The name of the organisation, "Drop of Water" in English, was chosen specifically to highlight how much work needs to be done in war-torn Cambodia. Although each life is precious, Jakob says, helping one child is just the tip of the iceberg.

"I think the most difficult thing is that everyday we are dealing with life or death. Choices have to be made about who should receive medical aid so that they can continue working and earning money to feed their families," says Jakob.

"Cambodians don't have enough money to pay for medical care, feed their children or send them to school, so it's up to organisations like ours in many cases to decide the fate of a family or a child."

by Samantha Tonkin

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