Lured by the hope of a better future, young women are flooding into the Cambodian capital, where experts note they are vulnerable to being trafficked into the sex trade or winding up on the streets.
Among the many impoverished Cambodians shifting to Phnom Penh, the kingdom’s only major city, women are drawn in large numbers by the prospect of a job in the booming garment sector.
Although no exact figures are available, the sudden growth of the industry in the late 1990s triggered an influx of women desperate to earn a living in the factories which now employ more than 200,000.
Cambodia’s predominantly agricultural economy is destitute and its social fabric in tatters after nearly three decades of conflict, which only formally ended in 1998 and included the murderous 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Women are attracted by the excitement of the capital as much as they are depressed by the bleak outlook they face tilling ever-shrinking plots of land split between ever-expanding families.
"Phnom Penh is becoming an international, developed, modern city," said Sebastien Marot, coordinator of non-government organisation Mith Samlanh or Friends, which assists street children and their families.
Meanwhile, he told AFP little had changed in the countryside for the past 10 or 20 years, other than for poverty to become even more widespread.
Yet many heading to the city for a better life have found the realities of urban life can be just as harsh.
"The women hear from their friends that it’s easy to find a job and earn money, but in reality, it’s not," said Kong Sathia, who heads Mith Samlanh’s young migrant program, which focuses on women.
The danger of being trafficked into Cambodia’s flourishing sex industry is ever present. As soon as the women step off the bus in Phnom Penh, motorbike taxi drivers with connections to the trade offer them free rides — to what turns out to be a brothel.
Rape is another risk, as is simply running out of cash and being forced onto the streets. The lucky ones secure factory jobs, but even then they must endure life in the squalid squatter areas that surround them.
And now the future of the garment sector is also in doubt — with the conclusion this year of a global quota system that fostered its creation — and already women are finding it tough as factories tighten their belts.
"This year it’s been more difficult… And if they don’t find someone immediately here to help them, they are at risk," Kong Sathia told AFP.
Kong Sathia heads a team of outreach workers who aim to intercept women before the criminals pounce by scouring Phnom Penh bus and taxi stations and factories to monitor fresh arrivals.
Team members have nurtured relationships with bus station police and vendors, urging them to call if they come across a new face so that someone can counsel the woman and advise her of her options.
Sugarcane juice vendor Ros Saron, who plies her trade at an informal taxi station, is part of the informal network.
"I’m here every day so I get to know who is new. The new girls talk, and they often want to talk to another woman. I often see them — they just don’t know where to go," she said.
There is also help on hand for the many migrants who are trying to escape abusive situations or prostitution.
Tia, a 20-year-old sex worker from eastern Svay Rieng province, has been in Phnom Penh for just a few days but it’s the fourth time she has made the trip here — each time somebody in the ring she worked for has tracked her down.
"I just want to find a job," she told AFP at Mith Samlanh’s centre for migrants, which opened last year.
The group every month contacts some 40 migrants as they enter the capital, and is also setting up centres in the provinces so women can make informed decisions about migrating.
But Women’s Affairs Minister Mu Sochua notes that even at home unscrupulous middlemen exploit their ambitions by demanding high commissions for finding them jobs.
"Once they’re in Phnom Penh, the risks depend on how long they have to wait for employment… That’s why we are seriously addressing the issue of employment as a means for reducing poverty. We must address growth," she said.
The outlook for female migrants now hinges on how the garment sector reacts to the end of the quota system, Mith Samlanh’s Marot said.
"It’s a huge question," he said, adding that a major urban crisis was just around the corner.
"If there is no more industry around, there will still be a lot of people coming but probably on a different level and with different expectations."