Photographs and Story by George Nickels
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A growing number of youths are spending their lives surviving on the streets of Cambodia's cities and towns numbing the pain of their pasts by abusing various types of drugs—the cheapest and most prevalent being solvents such as glue due to its low cost and availability. The vast majority of children who are inhaling solvents come from poverty-stricken backgrounds involving various forms of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
Organisations working throughout Cambodia such as Friends International, who work in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Aranyaprathet, assist families and children by providing social workers and systematically monitor areas that are known to be the worst affected with activities and support. Although it is not illegal for minors to purchase solvents, drug dealers buy glue in bulk and push it at a reduced rate to children who live on the street.
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The Cambodian government provides "rehabilitation" centres, better known as drug detention centres. Human Rights Watch has reported that these facilities consist of military drills, hard labor and forced exercise. Detainees are forced to work and exercise to the point of collapse, even when they are sick and malnourished. These centres offer no medically appropriate treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy, psycho-social support (counselling, for example) or opiate substitution therapy. As one former detainee explained, his centre was "not a rehab centre but a torture chamber."
Detainees—including adults, children and individuals suffering from mental illnesses—are frequently held without ever being allowed to see a lawyer, a judge or a courtroom. Some are picked up in "street sweeps," others yanked out of bed in the middle of the night, their families having paid the police to come and "arrest" them in order to put them in—what they hope will be—rehabilitation facilities.
Poor quality, and lack, of food and overcrowding are commonly reported. Individuals who are detained have described numbness and swelling in their extremities—symptoms that are associated with poor diet and consistent with beriberi, a disease caused by a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) that attacks the central nervous system or manifests in severe psychiatric symptoms, including amnesia.
Child detainees have reported to Human Rights Watch stories of being beaten and shocked with electric batons. One former child detainee, reported repeated sexual abuse by the military police commander of the centre where he had been detained.
Some massages I had to give were sexual... If I did not do this, he would beat me. The commander asked me to ‘eat ice cream’ [perform oral sex]. I refused and he slapped me... performing oral sex happened many times... how could I refuse?
Not a single government official contacted by the press has suggested that reports of lack of counselling, peer support, or opiate substitution therapy - international norms of drug treatment—are untrue. In fact, the Interior Ministry spokesperson, Khieu Sopheak, has insisted that those in detention "need to do labour, hard work and sweating - that is one of the main ways to make drug-addicted people become normal people."
Government figures for drug use in Cambodia are unreliable and range from about 6,000 to 20,000. The United Nations has estimated that as many as half a million people in Cambodia may be drug users.
Article and Photographs ©2022 George Nickels
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George Nickels is a freelance photojournalist, covering social conflict and humanitarian issues across Asia. His in-depth photography and editorial work provide an often unreported aspect of current affairs and news.
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