Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodian sea slaves detained

Cambodian sea slaves detained

Cambodian sea slaves detained

UP to 63 Cambodian nationals have been detained incommunicado in Indonesia since

July, 2000 after being illegally trafficked onto Thai fishing boats.

The men's plight came to the attention of human rights group LICADHO after one of

the men managed to send a letter to his mother in February desperately pleading for

help. According to the letter, dated Feb 1, 2001, the men had been lured by a human

trafficking ring with the promise of employment, issued with false Thai papers, and

then forced into virtual slavery fishing in Indonesian waters.

Since being intercepted last July by an Indonesian naval patrol, they have been detained

on the same Thai boats they were enslaved on at Surabaya's Lantamal naval base.

The letter writer claims that he and his companions, who are all in their twenties

and hail from Kampong Cham province, are being denied access to medical care and

legal representation.

But of even greater concern to the imprisoned Cambodians is that the Indonesian authorities

are threatening to repatriate the men to Thailand on the assumption that they are

in fact Thai citizens, raising the possibility that they will be enslaved yet again.

The letter is a plea to the Cambodian government to confirm their status as Cambodian

citizens and asks the Indonesian authorities to return the men to Cambodia "...otherwise

we will be sold again by the Thai police."

The mother of the 23 year-old letter writer, who spoke to the Post on condition of

anonymity, says that she has not seen her son since 1999.

"I asked him not to go away again but he said that the owner of the ship was

a good man and he told me that he would return in 2000," she said.

But her son, who apparently had left home in order to escape his violent step-father,

did not return. In his place came the letter recounting his nightmare of slavery

and imprisonment.

An International Organization for Migration (IOM) source based in Indonesia has confirmed

that the local authorities are holding 143 "Thai" fishermen.

Earlier this year the TNI reached an agreement to hand the men by warship to the

Thai Navy at an island located between the two countries, but the February 6 agreement

was put on hold after unexplained last minute intervention by the Thai embassy in

Indonesia.

Keo Visith of Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

told the Post that the Cambodian government had been informed by the Indonesia Embassy

in Phnom Penh that there were "about 70" Cambodians in custody in Surabaya.

Although there is no repatriation agreement between Cambodia and Indonesia, Cambodian

"sea slaves" have been brought home via diplomatic negotiations before.

The Indonesian Embassy admits it is aware of the problem, but officials were unavailable

for comment.

Meanwhile the letter writer's mother has tracked down 20 other families of the detained

men and says all the mothers are determined to get their children back.

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