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Hell on the high seas

Hell on the high seas

Seven Cambodian men have been rescued in Malaysia after being repeatedly trafficked across the region and used as slave labour aboard fishing boats, anti-trafficking groups said yesterday.

The men claim they were beaten, made to work unendurable hours, saw fishermen shot for the amusement of a boat captain and then thrown overboard, and were at times force-fed drugs during their ordeal.

At least five more Cambodian nationals who worked with the men did not escape. Their condition remains unknown.

Two rights groups, the Community Legal Education Centre in Cambodia and Tenaganita in Malaysia, worked with police and maritime authorities to identify and rescue the men in Sarawak province during raids on plywood factories conducted last week and in May.

The factories are suspected of illegally using them as cheap labour after they fled horrific conditions aboard two separate fishing vessels in late March and early April, said Huy Pich Sovann, a programme officer at CLEC.

In what is a familiar story for those dealing with trafficking victims, the men – who hail from provinces stretching from Banteay Meanchey to Kampot – said they sought work in Thailand in late 2010 and early 2011 through a broker. They were then trafficked onto Thai fishing boats where their passports were taken, said Huy Puch Sovann. “They were exploited and forcibly worked as slaves in fishing boats and sold to a Malaysian fishing-boat boss before they were rescued,” he said.  

“The owner of a boat [observed by one of the men] had a gun. Sometimes when he got drunk he laid them down on the boat and he would shoot at them, just for fun. If somebody got hit, there was no medicine to treat them and he’d just throw them in the water.”

Such conditions drove men on both boats to swim to shore in late March and early April, Aegile Fernandez, anti-human trafficking coordinator at Teneganita, said yesterday.

“Fishermen have shared stories with us about people who were sick and had no medication who had been beaten or shot and thrown into the sea. I think these are really serious matters that need to be addressed,” she said.

From shore, the men were picked up by brokers who took them to work in plywood factories for about 90 ringgit (US$30) per month, she added. Huy Pich Sovann said a raid was conducted by Malaysian police last Tuesday on Lim Brothers plywood factory in Kampong Sdau.

Battambang residents Hun Baraing, 47, and Kriel Ratanak, 20, as well as Nouv Vuthy, 21, from Kampot, were rescued.

Phan Sarak, 24, from Siem Reap, was rescued in a separ-ate raid on the same day at a chicken farm belonging to the same company.

Tith Sopheak and Sar Ra, both 27, from Battambang,  and 24-year-old Phath Sophay, from Pursat, were seized during an earlier rescue operation at the Asia Plywood factory in Tanjung Manis town on May 28.

Asia Plywood did not respond to inquiries from The Post yesterday and the contact details of Lim Brothers could not be found.

All the victims remain in an immigration detention facility in Sarawak, awaiting repatriation.  

Chhoeng Heap, 52, father of Nouv Vuthy, from Kampot‘s Chhouk district, said his son was trafficked by a broker in September last year, even though he had forbidden his son from seeking work in Thailand because he believed it was dangerous.

His son called him once he had escaped the fishing boat and said he was desperate to return to Cambodia.

“He was forced to work as a slave while living on the sea, I was very shocked to hear my son’s voice,” he said.

On Thursday, Chhong Heap’s son phoned again to tell his father the ordeal was over and he would soon be repatriated to Cambodia.

“I was very glad to hear from him. I would like to appeal to the Cambodian government, espec-ially the embassy, to take legal action to return my son and all the victims to their homes as soon as possible,” he said.  

Hundreds of trafficked Cambodian fishermen had turned up in Sarawak in the past few years, Fernandez said, often as floating bodies that had been tossed overboard.

She called for the Association of South East Asian Nations to address a multinational slave labour trafficking business that required urgent co-ordination by all countries involved.

Just how many more Cambodians are languishing aboard fishing boats as disposable slave labour is impossible to estimate but Chea Nara, senior human rights monitor at Licadho, said they had located another eleven men stranded in Malaysian prisons.

With no passports, such workers can be deemed illegal migrants rather than victims of human trafficking and, if caught, can be imprisoned.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong and Raja Saiful Ridzuwan, deputy chief of mission at the Malaysian embassy in Cambodia, could not be reached.