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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 11 years on, a mother still hopes

11 years on, a mother still hopes

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Chea Mon cried at the arrival terminal yesterday when she saw that her son, who disappeared 11 years ago, was not among the seven rescued Cambodian trafficking victims stepping through the exit gate at Phnom Penh International Airport. 

Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Chea Mon, whose son has been missing for the past 11 years after going abroad to work on fishing boats, speaks to the Post yesterday at Phnom Penh International Airport.

As had been the case many times before when she had travelled to the airport, seizing on news that victims rescued from Thai fishing boats would return, she was sorely disappointed.

“I ran out of hope when I didn’t see my son among the seven fishermen who arrived back in their homeland today after I heard that migrant workers had been sent back,” she said.

Chea Mon told reporters that in the 11 years her son had been gone, she had received only one phone call from 38-year-old Soy Sros, who left Kampong Speu for Thailand, lured by the  bait of rumoured high salaries.

“I don’t know if he is alive or dead. I did not agree with him going, but in my village there are so many people who went,” she said.

Those who did arrive yesterday, alive, if not well, are among a group of 14 rescued last week during a co-ordinated effort by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Organisation for Migration and Indonesian authorities, after desperate phone calls from the victims.

Seven others remain in Indonesia awaiting repatriation, while on Monday, families in Kampong Chhnang filed a complaint to provincial police seeking help to find relatives they say are stranded in Malaysia and Africa after escaping fishing boats.

Ben Channa, an official at the Ministry of Interior’s anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection department, said police are now searching for the brokers who sent the men to Thailand.

More than 100 Cambodian men have been repatriated from abroad since December after escaping or being rescued from slave labour conditions on Thai fishing boats.  

One of them, 23-year-old Eng Ros from Kampot province, recounted the familiar dilemma of those caught in a migrant labour trade where reports have surfaced for years of forced labour, beatings, shootings, drugging and murder.

“Once I was on the boat, I knew that I had been trafficked, but I could not do anything because it is a big sea,” he said.

The Gulf of Thailand and surrounding waters such as the South China Sea are the trawling grounds for the tens of thousands of boats operating in the highly unregulated Thai fishing industry, which sells billions of dollars worth of fish each year primarily to foreign markets.

Andy Hall, foreign expert at Mahidol University’s Institute of Population and Social Research in Bangkok, said it was “about time that the international governments that are buying these products start taking the issue seriously”.

“The whole industry is reliant on trafficking, they can’t get people onto the boats without deceiving them, and all we get is a denial from the fishing industry that there is a problem,” he said.

“The fishing industry is connected to huge multinational companies across the world, and I think that what you have to remember is that governments like to take the easy options, so they give money to UN agencies.”

Instead, real economic pressure needed to be applied to Thailand, which also should be downgraded to Tier 3 in the next US State Department Trafficking in Persons report for its failure to take any serious action on the matter, he said.

Somkiat Chayasriwong, permanent secretary at Thailand’s Ministry of Labour, said his government had taken steps to address trafficking in the industry, setting up offices to respond to the issue in every Thai province in December last year.

“However, right now, we haven’t caught or arrested anybody,” he said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said real action would not come until consumers were made aware through the media of the conditions under which their fish were caught.

“It’s going to be a battle of attrition to get these fishing associations to confess to the fact that they are systematically using forced labour and trafficked labour and that their economic model is based on human misery,” he said.

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