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Study notes trafficking's impact on child mental health

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A student looks out the window at a school for underprivileged children in Siem Reap last year, where the director was arrested for trafficking children of the school. GEORGE NICKELS

Study notes trafficking's impact on child mental health

A new study on the mental health consequences for child survivors of trafficking reveals a high prevalence of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a high risk for suicide and self-harm.

Published yesterday in US medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, the study – billed by the authors as “the largest quantitative survey to date” on the subject – aggregated data obtained through survey research of 387 boys and girls aged 10 to 17 in post-trafficking facilities in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Lead author and lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Dr Ligia Kiss said while the data – collected over a three-year period – are only representative of rescued children, it “gives us a good hint of what is happening and the gravity of the consequences”.

The study revealed that more than half of child survivors screened positive for depression, a third for anxiety disorders and a quarter for PTSD. The investigation also showed that 12 per cent of children “had attempted to harm or kill themselves” in the month prior to their interview, while 15.8 per cent had “suicidal thoughts”.

“We are really shocked by the numbers, they are really high. They are scarily high,” Kiss said.

Results gathered show that “one-third of the sample (33 per cent) reported physical and/or sexual violence while trafficked”. Boys were more commonly subjected to physical violence than girls, whereas girls were the overwhelming victims of sexual violence. Other sources of trauma identified covered hygiene, living and work conditions as well as insufficient food.

Of the 44 Cambodian children surveyed in the study, half were accessing post-trafficking services in Thailand, with the rest in the Kingdom.

Thailand was the most common destination reported among Cambodian subjects, with 29.6 per cent having been trafficked as beggars, 15.9 per cent as street sellers and 13.6 per cent for construction work.

Another significant sector of exploitation is the fishing industry (15.9 per cent), from which children had been returned from multiple countries, predominantly IndonesiaKiss noted that Cambodian boys in the study were disproportionately more likely to have been trafficked into fishing and begging.

Emphasising the “urgency” of specialised care following rescue and during reintegration, Kiss added that “especially in the case of Cambodia, mental health care is underfunded”.

Chhan Sokunthea, director of the women’s and children’s division at local rights group Adhoc, said that Cambodian public services “cannot provide” the care required for victims suffering mental problems.

Noting there is only one public hospital in Phnom Penh able to provide such services, and for a charge, Sokunthea added that “communities in the provinces have no mental health services”.

While there are international organisations that provide specialised services pro-bono, these are also centralised and their capacity is limited by their funding.

In the absence of care, Kiss said she feared that “[child survivors] are at a high risk of having their mental health status worsened and potentially a fatal outcome”.

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