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A fisherman who was rescued from slave-like conditions on a Thai fishing boat sits in the shade of a house in Siem Reap’s Chi Kraeng district yesterday afternoon. Thik Kaliyann

Navigating their future

As 230 more Cambodian fishermen are set to return from Indonesia today, those that have already made it home from years of hardship and turmoil on the high seas have found that they are largely in the same boat as when they left years ago.

In Mkak village, a sleepy hamlet of some 800 people located about two hours drive from Siem Reap town in Kok Thloak Loeu commune, Chi Kraeng district, nine fishermen who were rescued last month from Benjina, a remote island in eastern Indonesia where they were kept for several years in slave-like conditions, have found that being home has offered a new challenge: finding work.

As in much of rural Cambodia, the village is inhabited by rice farmers who practise subsistence agriculture. As such, alternative job prospects are severely limited.

Cheang Lim*, 27, left home for Thailand almost seven years ago, on promises of higher pay and a better life. In a country where the GDP per capita is about $1,000 a year, according to the World Bank, he chose to leave after he was offered $200 per month to work on one of the boats.

Winding up on a rickety vessel in the middle of the sea with no escape possible, he realised he had been duped into an existence mostly comprising forced labour, physical abuse and constant struggle. Over the almost seven years he spent at sea, he made less than $100 per month. “A real hell,” he says.

Now free, Lim said that although he is content being back with his family, he is painfully aware of his uncertain financial future.

“I’m very happy to be back with my parents. [But] I am jobless now. I have no idea what I should do now that I’ve come back here.”

Another returnee, Tang Sopheap*, also said he was thrilled to be home, but expressed a weariness with his future job prospects.

“I’m very bored. I’m just staying around with my parents,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the rain to start so I can help my parents when the rice-planting season begins.”

Both men are stuck. With no desire to seek opportunities abroad after their ordeal, they are focused on their lives in Cambodia. But their village is poor, and with a lack of rain at the start of this year’s wet season, agricultural prospects seem bleak. Such scenarios make the thought of searching for work abroad very attractive for some.

“Employment opportunities in rural Cambodia are very limited. They rely on agriculture, and agriculture is not high yielding and very seasonal,” said independent economist Srey Chanthy. “People go abroad because they want to see the world, and they think conditions and payment might be better.”

But for others, such as Lim and Sopheap, whose experiences abroad have left a horribly bitter taste, finding work in Cambodia can be a daunting task. Both said they have nothing to offer in the way of skills outside of rice farming.

They are reluctant to search for work in the nearby tourist hotspot of Siem Reap because they lack English-language skills. On top of that, both admit to being illiterate.

“I’m afraid to go. I’m not good at English or Khmer. I want to learn a specific skill,” Lim said, adding that he cannot go back to school because there is no English school nearby and
he lacks the funds to travel elsewhere.

Their professional shortcomings are compounded by the lack of support mechanisms available to them in the country. Outside associations that have picked up the slack are struggling to accommodate those in need.

World Vision, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organisation, has been tasked with monitoring the men in Mkak village.

Kert An, the Mkak village chief, said that until now, World Vision has only visited them twice, and offered them little more than rice, noodles and new clothes for their fresh start.

But Heng Soheanh, a senior project manager at World Vision, stressed that the group was handling the situation on a case-by-case basis. He said World Vision had been working on individual “psycho-social” assessments for those who have returned, claiming that the process would be completed in a week.

“We have to appeal to the community and have to deal with the capacity,” he said. “We are thinking about a lot, and we have adequate funding and programs to help.”

While NGOs say they are doing their part, the government seems to be largely absent in reintegrating these citizens back into society.

“For many of these returning fishermen, they get met at the airport by government officials but not much more than that,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“Cambodia does little to prevent men from being trafficked, offers no practical help to get them off the fishing boats and then ignores them when they return home with shattered physical and mental health.”

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, said that these workers’ domestic plight is only half of the picture, explaining that the government also does little to protect migrant workers’ safety while they are abroad.

“In Indonesia, [the government] ignored them the whole way until the international community brought it to their attention, and then they brought them back,” he said. “They never help [or] take any kind of responsibility to look after them.”

He added that many migrant workers were forced to bribe embassy officials to gain access to any kind of consular services.

But government spokesman Phay Siphan said many migrant workers’ hardships are difficult to monitor since so many Cambodians seek work abroad outside of official channels.

“Part of it is that many migrant workers go [abroad] illegally,” he said. “Embassies in places such as Indonesia and the Philippines make sure to keep an eye on them, and when we get information from NGOs and international organisations, we tend to act right away.”

When asked about providing opportunities at home for returnees, Siphan said that the government has set up vocational centres in provinces such as Battambang, but added that the government would not provide help in finding jobs.

“We cannot force them to work anywhere – they have a right to choose their jobs,” he said, adding that, ultimately, “Nobody forced them to do anything.”

Regardless of the grim situation, Lim and Sopheap adamantly stated that they would never seek work in another country again.

“I will tell [my countrymen] it’s very difficult, and that they will not be able to leave.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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