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A group of migrant fisherman return to Phnom Penh after being rescued from Indonesia last year. Photo supplied
A group of migrant fisherman return to Phnom Penh after being rescued from Indonesia last year. Photo supplied

Rescues of trafficked migrant workers surge

More than 500 trafficked Cambodian migrant workers were rescued abroad and sent home in 2015, a huge increase compared to 2014 numbers, though largely attributable to a handful of mass repatriations from Indonesia.

According to a report by the Foreign Ministry, 573 workers were returned home in 2015, a 327 per cent increase from 134 in 2014.

The jump was primarily due to the repatriation of 427 fishermen from Indonesia in the wake of an Associated Press investigation into slave-like conditions aboard fishing boats working in that country’s waters. Just 23 Cambodians were returned from Indonesia in 2014.

Meanwhile, some 82 were rescued from China in 2015, compared with 59 the year before, while 55 were rescued from Malaysia in 2015, compared to 34 in 2014.

The rest of the repatriated workers numbered in the single digits and were rescued from Saudi Arabia, Papua New Guinea and South Africa.

Figures were not provided for Thailand, a major destination for Cambodian migrant workers, because Thai authorities repatriate tens of thousands of Cambodians themselves every year.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sunry yesterday said the jump was due both to increased trafficking activity and more vigorous enforcement.

“[The workers] encounter mistreatment, labour exploitation, abuse, withheld salaries, long hours, and that’s why they seek our embassies to help them get back to their homeland,” he said.

“The embassies are busy helping workers, that’s why [Foreign] Minister Hor Namhong always phones the ambassador directly to help workers who meet mistreatment and need help.”

But Dy Thehoya, a program officer at labour rights group Central, said he hadn’t observed a noticeable push from the government on repatriating workers.

He attributed 2015’s increase entirely to pressure from the European Union and the press on the Thai and Indonesian governments to crack down on trawlers that force workers, mostly from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, to work in slave-like conditions off the Indonesian coast.

On the heels of the Associated Press investigation in April, the European Union threatened to ban all Thai seafood imports, and hundreds of fishermen were repatriated to their home countries over the next few months.

“Only the fishermen in Indonesia saw attention, because of the pressure from the EU,” said Thehoya, adding that Cambodian embassies needed to increase their staff and punish corrupt embassy workers to truly address the problem.

During the ruling Cambodian People’s Party congress last weekend, Prime Minister Hun Sen also warned that Cambodian embassy staffers who do not help workers would be fired, according to a Facebook post by Information Minister Khieu Kanharith.

Lim Mony, deputy chief of the women’s division for rights group Adhoc, said there remained “many workers and maids who are still facing difficulties abroad – and they need help”.

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