Trafficking victim Thith Sopheak had a strong warning for people contemplating the promises of labour brokers when he returned home to Cambodia on Friday – don’t believe them, you’ll end up in hell.
“It just put tears in my eyes to see them [other victims]. It is a hellish situation. There are a lot of Cambodians, not just 100, maybe 1,000 on the boats,” he said.
An unknown number of Cambodian men, like him, have been trafficked onto Thai and Malaysian fishing boats as slave labourers and subjected to appalling abuses.
Those deemed expendable – falling ill or exhausted from 22-hour work days – have reportedly been beaten and then tossed in the South China Sea to die.
Thith Sopheak and six other men were the “lucky” ones, who jumped ship and were eventually rescued in Malaysia, before finally arriving home on Friday.
“They mistreated us so much. They hit us and so many Cambodians died at sea,” said the 29–year-old at Phnom Penh International Airport.
“I decided to jump into the water. I thought that if I was lucky, I would live. I swam 200 metres and arrived in Malaysia.”
Chan Phally, the mother of 21-year-old victim Nouv Vuthy, who also returned on Friday, said she had warned her son that offers of lucrative jobs in Thailand from brokers were dangerous, but he stubbornly decided to go anyway.
“I was ill when he called me once and said he had been trafficked as a boatman,” she said, tentatively waiting to hug the son she had not seen for months.
“I missed my relatives, especially my mum, so much. Right now I feel reborn,” her son said following their reunion.
Although six of the group have now returned home, their future remains uncertain, said Huy Pich Sovann, a programme officer at the Community Legal Education Center in Cambodia, yesterday.
“They are still worrying about their lives. They have no jobs and they have no income … it’s very difficult to find them jobs or provide them training,” he said. But the men had received gifts of noodles, canned fish and US$10 each from the Cambodian Red Cross and could perhaps find some work as paid advocates, warning potential victims of the horror they endured, he added.
Most were keen to start their own businesses, he said, but were unaware of any financial assistance to be provided from the government.
Repatriated victim Sun Baraing, aged 47, said on Friday that he would never make the mistake of going abroad to work again.
“I am alive, this is my luck. I am illiterate and I don’t know what to do in the future. I just want to live with my mum in happiness. I am a man, I will not cry,” he said.
Bith Kimhong, director of the anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection department at the Ministry of Interior, said yesterday investigations were underway to identify and arrest the brokers responsible for trafficking the men in late 2010 and early 2011.
“After we interviewed [the victims], we made a conclusion that it was a suspected case of human trafficking across the border and we have been working to conduct an investigation,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG