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Siem Reap’s baby milk scam

Streetwise visitors to Siem Reap should know that giving money to begging children is tantamount to giving money directly to the adults who force them to work the streets in the first place. So when a child, or even an adult, approaches you on Pub Street and asks you to buy milk for their baby instead, surely that’s okay. Isn’t it?

Pub Street is a favoured hangout for child beggars

Pub Street is a favoured hangout for beggars and hawkers.

As a city commuter I used to pass a beggar in the subway daily asking for “any spare change”. Knowing that money given to urban beggars often only fuels drink, drugs or gambling habits, but feeling guilty none the less, I decided to offer him some food one day instead. “Er, no thanks”, came the swift reply.

In Siem Reap things are no different, and giving money to the child beggars and hawkers in and around Pub Street is never more than a quick fix and rarely, if ever, does anything to provide a long term solution to children’s hunger, or to equip them with skills to build a decent future for themselves.

So when you feel the tug of a tiny hand on your T-shirt or the prod of a bony finger in your back, and you turn to see the imploring eyes of a child’s dirt-smudged face staring up at you, it is usually with some relief that you realise the child is not asking for money. What they want is for you to buy some milk for the tiny baby lolling in a makeshift sling around their shoulders.

So, you go with the child to the store, you buy a tub of formula milk, and you feel good that you have managed to help without handing over hard cash. Happy tourist, happy kid. But imagine how you would feel if, once you had gone, the child returned to the store to give back the milk, and received a refund of half the cost, while the store pocketed the other half? Happy kid, happy store owner. Duped tourist. Unfortunately if you went to the child and the baby with a bottle full of made-up formula they would simply say, like the beggar on the subway, “er, no thanks”. You might as well just give them the money in the first place.

Baby milk can convert easily to ready cash

Baby milk can convert easily to ready cash

Tourists are gradually becoming aware of this scam — which is not unique to Siem Reap by any means — so it’s little wonder that the children are becoming desperate. When I lived in Siem Reap I was once jabbed in the back by a child shouting, “Why you say no? I don’t want MONEY, I want MILK FOR BABY”; I even saw a young girl poking an innocent tourist in the breast saying “I need milk, MILK FOR BABY”. Remember that while it may be unpleasant for you, it is never the children’s idea to do this — invariably a parent or other adult has trained them to do it with a combination of reward when they do well and punishment when they don’t. It’s just another form of child exploitation, so a firm but polite “no, thank you” is usually enough to deter them, and getting angry with the children would be wrong.

If tourists stopped buying the baby milk — and stopped buying postcards or trinkets from them, or paying them to dance way past midnight in Pub Street — then eventually this kind of activity would become unsustainable. Quite simply, children who are begging by day should be in school, and those who are begging by night should be in bed so that they can go to school without being too exhausted to learn.

But it is only natural to want to help. Even if the baby milk ploy is just another cunning way to get money out of tourists, isn’t there a chance that it might just be spent on food, clothing and shelter for the needy? Perhaps. But there is also a sizeable risk that it won’t. So how can you help?

There are many organisations in Siem Reap who help street children to stay off the streets and teach them skills so that when they become adults they will be able to earn a decent living, without having to resort to the desperate measures that so often are the only options left to uneducated and unskilled teenagers. Do your homework thoroughly before parting with any money as sadly there are rogue organisations out there too, which only serve to perpetuate child exploitation.

The best you can do is donate money through a reputable registered charity in your home country. Being a registered NGO in Cambodia does not always mean the same as it might in the west, although many are totally above board. To be sure you are giving to a reputable organisation, you can consult with Siem Reap-based ConCERT, who can advise you on responsible and sustainable ways to help while you are still in Cambodia.

After all, no one wants to be duped out of their holiday savings, and no one wants to see children walking the streets at midnight screaming out for milk. It may well be a long job, but we have to start somewhere.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
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