K ANA KLAP, Takeo province - Standing up in his seat for a better view, the young
man leads an ox-driven cart into the family garden and dumps a load of the harvest
to the ground where the rice grains will later be beaten from their husks.
When the exhausted 20-year-old enters the three-room house, the faces of his mother
and father brighten. They are happy their son is home and helping with the harvest.
Just one week ago, Chuop Pan's parents did not hold much hope that they would see
their son again. He disappeared for three weeks, and at least one fortune teller
had told his mother that he was dead.
Perhaps the fortune teller knew that wishful trips to the coastal province of Koh
Kong to find work in Thailand are usually one-way tickets to despair.
Pan, however, was luckier than most. Brought back from Koh Kong by the United Nations
Center for Human Rights (UNCHR), he is one of 72 Cambodians rescued last month after
falling victims to an illegal cross-border employment scam.
He has no doubt that provincial authorities are aware of the human trafficking occurring
between the two countries, and suspects they may even profit from the trade. "The
people who fill out the paperwork and those who help laborers cross the border have
to pay the authorities to let them go," he says.
Pan also had heard stories of Cambodians who are drugged with Yama - a type of amphetamine
reportedly made from horse brains in Thailand - to be more productive workers. "Even
for the smallest boy, a big log seems very light," he says. "They become
strong like elephants. I do not know if they really use it in Cambodia, but I am
sure they use it in Thailand."
Pan's mother, Chuop Yon, shaved her head to thank Buddha for the safe return of her
son. Now that Pan is back, his mother is keeping a closer eye on him than ever before.
"Nothing can be compared with the joy of him coming back," says Pan's father,
Pan left home with dreams of finding his fortune in Thailand. A man from his village
persuaded him to leave with tales of Cam-bodia's more fortunate neighbor - a place
where jobs and a good salary are easy to find.
He left with five friends, high hopes and 350,000 riel ($100) borrowed from neighbors
to pay for the trip.
"On the way to Koh Kong, we did not have any problems. But when we arrived we
had to pay for travel documents. Then I crossed the border by myself," explains
Once in Thailand, Pan found his way to a house where he and other Cambodian laborers
had to pay 200 baht ($4.25) a month for room and board. Work, however, was more difficult
to come by in a job market shrunk by Thailand's floundering economy.
"There were 20 of us staying in the same house. The Thai owner promised he would
find us jobs on a construction site in Trat. We waited for ten days but nothing was
"Then one day he told us that we had to pay 50 baht ($1.06) more to be driven
to Trat. On the road we were arrested by military police," says Pan, adding
he is convinced that the owner of the house had them arrested because he could not
"The police asked for 3,000 baht ($63) each to be freed, but as nobody had the
money, we were sent to the judge in Trat. He asked us for 2,800 baht ($59). It was
a discount from the police's price, but I had no money left and was sentenced to
As he talks about his time behind bars, Pan's voice becomes weak. "We were kept
in different rooms according to our age. The police beat us," remembers Pan.
As he was young, the 20-year-old was sent back to Koh Kong after only 15 days.
There, he tried to find enough work to regain the money he had lost. "I did
not dare to come back home. I was shy because I lost all the money my parents had
borrowed for me to go," he says.
While working for a timber company, Pan and others seeking shelter at a local pagoda
were approached by human rights investigators, who rescued them from the Koh Kong
labor trap and sent them home.
Back in Kana Klap, Pan's story is not unique. Eleven others had done the same, but
only Pan returned from Thailand.
"It started three years ago," says Doeun Chhorn, the village chief. "I
do not feel comfortable when they go there. I advise them not to go because they
will lose a lot of money.... We really need to devise a strategy to prevent them
from going," says Chhorn.
Pan's father agrees, and adds: "It is better for Cambodians to be in Cambodia,
poor or not."
At least now the village chief has reason to be more optimistic. Pan's return with
horror stories from his brief trip across the border will hopefully dissuade others
Additionally, the UNCHR is trying to convince those they helped rescue to participate
in an awareness program on human trafficking and forced labor. Their time spent spreading
the truth about the tempting stories recruiters tell their victims will earn them
money to pay back their debts.
"Some villagers were planning to go after harvest, but now I hope they will
cancel their plans," Doeun Chhorn says.
Pan's story is echoed by two young men from Krangyov village in Kandal province.
A neighbor persuaded them to go to Koh Kong. "He told me that he would bring
me to Thailand and I would work there as a fisherman," says Ban Narath.
He gave the recruiter 250,000 riel ($71) and was taken to the coastal province, where
he stayed for more than a month waiting to be smuggled into Thailand. He never made
it to the border.
"We stayed one month in that warehouse... We gave them our money. We were not
allow to leave the building for the first 15 days after we arrived," says Narath.
During their time in Koh Kong the two met several groups of laborers who passed through
the warehouse, spending just one night there before crossing the border.
"We have been cheated," says Ny Eng, Narath's friend. "They gambled
with our money, lost it and kept asking for more to let us cross the border."
The recruiter even went to Narath and Eng's families to ask for more money from them.
Finally, the human rights investigators found them in the warehouse, freed them and
brought them back to Phnom Penh.
"I feel that I have shamed everybody [in my family]. I have no job and I lost
money," says Narath on his way home.