Terror and relief ran through Phal Chantha’s mind as he climbed ashore on a small beach in Malaysia, some 1,200 kilometres across the South China Sea from his home in Cambodia.
Behind him in hot pursuit were the Thai fishermen who he said had subjected him to four months of beatings and slave labour, drugged him and murdered his colleagues as he stood watching.
Ahead lay a hostile jungle, a foreign country and the hope of freedom.
That hope was to prove empty. Phal Chantha soon discovered that he was caught in a cycle of trafficking kept in motion by governmental corruption and multinational brokering networks that operate in Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia.
In late 2008 while working as a manual labourer for a mere 6,000 riel a day, Phal Chantha was introduced through a friend to a broker who extended a compelling offer: If he was willing to relocate to Thailand, he would be rewarded with a lucrative job in a fish-processing plant.
Employees could expect to earn about US$230 a month, an offer the desperately impoverished man, struggling to send money back home to his family, could not refuse.
It was to be the beginning of a series of deceptions for Phal Chantha, who would fall victim to a widespread and highly organised labour trafficking trade that rights groups say supplies an estimated one-fifth of Thailand’s fishing industry workers.
Labour trafficking ensnares impoverished individuals and their families in a web of slavery and extortion that ceases only when they have been sucked dry of every possession, says Manfred Hornung, a legal advisor from the Cambodian rights group Licadho.
“It goes over the whole three borders if you like, involving three nations with very distinct problems in relation to corruption at all levels,” says Manfred Hornung, who has investigated the slave labour market since 2006.
Shortly after arriving in Thailand, Phal Chantha was locked in a room and drugged. He awoke to find himself enslaved, trapped aboard a Thai fishing boat with no rights and no legal documents. Months of exploitation followed.
“I was forced to work day and night with only one or two hours of sleep in between, and if I didn’t work, they would kill me,” he said of the conditions that led him to risk his life by jumping overboard into darkness and dangerous waters while his boat docked for repairs on December 21, 2009.
In those early hours of the morning, Phal Chantha and three other men swam ashore and embarked on a three-day journey through a jungle somewhere off the northern coast of Sarawak without food, constantly hiding from their tormentors, in search of a town named Sibu mentioned by other slaves.
When they finally arrived and tried to turn themselves in to local authorities, police refused to arrest the men. Shortly afterward they were approached by a man who spoke Thai and talked of employment opportunities that could lead to repatriation.
Phal Chantha and Rim Rann saw through an all too familiar trick, but their colleagues whom they knew only as Phin and Ruen, were deeply homesick and couldn’t help taking the bait.
Manfred Hornung says Phin and Ruen were following a path for trafficked Cambodian workers, a path that has become so well established since he began observing it in 2006 that a thriving slave labour trade has arisen in Sarawak to exploit escapees.
“They are basically stranded in Sarawak and they don’t know where they are.
They don’t know the state, they don’t know the country, but once they are on land and walk the road to try and find help they have already been spotted by brokers,” he says.
Aegile Fernandez, anti-human trafficking coordinator of Malaysia-based NGO Tenaganita, says escapees arrive so frequently that brokers are literally waiting for them on shore.
“The agents are at the coastlines and they know certain spots where the trafficked fishermen jump ship. As soon as they come on shore ... the agents go and tell them you can earn some money.”
Recruited with the promise that after a few years they can earn airfare back to Cambodia, most men see little choice but to agree. With no local language skills, no rights and, most pressingly, no food, they are quickly sold into local labour markets.
Most will never see a paycheck and find themselves subjected to a second round of exploitation that has been documented by Licadho in dozens of cases.
Soon they find themselves faced with a terrible choice: Do they continue to work for an employer who provides no pay and little food, or escape again and throw themselves upon the mercy of the Malaysian legal system?
Those who choose the second path invariably end up in one of Malaysia’s immigration detention centres. Here too, the brokers are waiting.
Their intention at this final stage of exploitation is to extort money from the victim’s family in Cambodia, who must pay $300 to $400 in exchange for the men’s safe return.
This final stage, sometimes referred to as “re-trafficking”, is particularly disturbing, says Hornung. Having already endured terrible hardships, the victim returns to a family that has been financially destroyed.
“If you have to raise $400, you have to give up your land as collateral. If your son comes back with no money in his pocket, it’s a clear recipe for disaster.”
Sith Luos, chief of the anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection office at the police commissariat in Banteay Meanchey province, says the trade in trafficked Cambodian workers is driven by unstoppable illegal migration paths into Thailand.
“In the first half of 2010, 56,282 people have been sent back to Cambodia by Thai authorities,” he said, citing the data for Banteay Meanchey alone.
Just how many additional illegal migrant workers go undetected by Thai authorities remains unclear, but the scale of Thailand’s illegal fishing industry and reliance on foreign slave labour suggests the real figure is significantly higher.
Lim Tith, national project coordinator at the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, estimates the total fish-selling trade in Thailand, registered or otherwise, to be worth $2 billion a year in exports.
“ILO research on the industry, although primarily looking at Burmese migrants, indicates that 20 percent of the migrant workers on the boats are trafficked,” he said.
“We are looking here in the range of tens of thousands of boats,” Licadho’s Hornung said, adding that he has seen little being done in Thailand at the policing level to crack down on the black-market operators.
“We’ve sent information through various channels to police about that, and the response wasn’t very strong, to say the least, about criminal investigations against these practices.”
Sith Luos says that officials in key Cambodian border provinces such as his own are trying to crack down on illegal migration and brokering but simply do not have the resources to deal with the massive flow of people over the border.
Chronic food shortages and poverty are so entrenched in Cambodia’s most impoverished rural provinces such as Prey Veng and Banteay Meanchay that even awareness campaigns alerting people to the risks involved in seeking unregulated employment abroad are failing to curb the wave of migration, Hornung says.
“I think it is a social issue. It has to do with a huge young labour force pressing onto the Cambodian labour market every year so people go out of desperation; its not a matter of choice,” said Hornung.
No one knows exactly how many of these men have ended up languishing in Malaysian detention facilities, but the estimates of returned victims range from 40 to more than 100 in Lenggeng alone.
After authorities eventually apprehended the defiant Phal Chantha and his friend Rim Rann, they were sent through a series of detention facilities until ending up in the notorious Lenggeng detention centre.
“I was sent to live in the small prison cell, 16 metres by 4 metres, with more than 40 people. We slept on each other and shat in the same room,” he said.
From a block of several hundred male detainees from countries around the world, Phal Chantha could hear the cries of about 10 Cambodian women who said they had fled abusive working conditions as house keepers without their passports and had been subsequently detained as illegal migrant workers.
“I felt pity on them very much, but I didn’t know what to do.”
It was also in Lenggeng that Phal Chantha forged a relationship with two other men, Vann Vinn and Sim Ek, and began trying to devise a plan to secure their return to Cambodia.
Hornung explains that, once inside, people like Phal Chantha, Rim Rann, Van Vinn and Sim Ek can be processed under Malaysia’s robust anti-human trafficking legislation, but are sometimes, inexplicably, deemed undocumented migrant workers and considered to have committed criminal offenses.
Sim Ek and Van Vinn were luckily identified as legitimate trafficking victims and eventually transported home through official channels, but Phal Chantha and Rim Rann were subjected to different standards of law.
They were deemed to be undocumented migrant workers, received prison terms of 3 months and on top of routine beatings from the Lenggeng’s guards, were subjected to caning, a punishment under Malaysian law.
“Under Malaysian law, 100 percent of the cases we have dealt with in the past four or five years, all of them have been trafficking victims under the Malaysian anti-trafficking bill,” said Hornung.
Both Hornung and Fernandez agree the legislation alone is an adequate framework to protect trafficking victims such as Phal Chantha and Sim Ek. The problem is not the law but the way it is enforced.
Sim Ek says that other than one brief meeting with Cambodian embassy officials who promised to help him and then went silent, his only contact with the outside world during his incarceration was with brokers who promised to help him – for a price.
“You have 13 of these immigration detention depots in Malaysia.
We have reports about the biggest ones and these seem to be a thriving business,” said Hornung.
Phal Chantha also tried to contact the Cambodian embassy and managed to get onto an embassy official who told him to call back in a few days time.
“I called again and he said that he was a vegetable seller.”
Oung Vantha, an official at the Cambodian embassy in Malaysia, says the embassy does consult with Cambodians stuck in Malaysian detention centres, but is hamstrung by the need to negotiate with Malaysian authorities and the lack of funds to fly victims back home.
“The victims contact the relatives by themselves, so they have money to buy a ticket,” he said.
After that, Oung Vantha says, negotiations can begin with Malaysian immigration officials to secure their release.
“Immigration in Malaysia will prepare the document for the victim and ask the Cambodian embassy to issue the travel document for the victim, and the embassy will issue the Lesser Passe for them,” he said.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also stands by the support provided to trafficking victims from Cambodian embassy officials in Malaysia.
“If they call the embassy [in Malaysia], the embassy will take actions to help them immediately, but we are afraid that they do not contact us,” he said.
“I would like them to go to abroad legally, so if something happens to them, we can easily help them.”
But Fernandez gives a very different rendition of the repatriation process.
“If it’s human trafficking victims, then the government sends them back, but if it is undocumented migrant workers, what happens is one way of getting them out is to ask the families to pay.
The immigration officials do this; they get agents who demand or threaten money to get home,” she said.
Although her organisation is not allowed into detention facilities, Fernandez says brokering agents have virtually unfettered access.
“This is a form of corruption because, on one hand, you do not allow NGOs to go in, but you do allow agents. How can you allow them when you say no one is allowed into a detention centre?”
The deputy chief of mission of the Malaysian embassy in Phnom Penh, Raja Saifful Ridzuwan, said he was unaware of re-trafficking in Malaysian detention facilities.
Explicit or implicit, there is evidence, including copies of brokering agreements signed by Cambodian government officials, brokers and families, that immigration officials in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia are willing players in the business of bondage.
One of the latest returnees, Hornung says, described how a female Cambodian broker named Rum Many (phonetic spelling) was allowed to take all the inmates at Lenggeng into a room, where she made it clear there was only one way home anytime soon – pay her money.
“She was telling them that this would be 1.5 million riel per person so that it would be best for them to cooperate with her and give them the contact details of family members in Cambodia so they can arrange to be returned to Cambodia.”
The Post has obtained a copy of one of the contracts used in 2008 to sanction such a brokering agreement, for the sum of 1.4 million riel.
Signed by a victim whose name must be concealed to protect his safety, a woman named Mat Samny acting on behalf of her husband, Loh Samad, and the chief of Panyier Khraet district’s Por Pel commune in Kampong Cham, Sat Mod, the document is a clear example of local government complicity in re-trafficking.
Because low-level government and police corruption is a daily reality in all three countries through which Cambodian male migrant workers are trafficked, Hornung maintains the only way to ensure victims are correctly identified and processed accordingly is through high-level multilateral government cooperation.
“While that is still not happening, there will be continuing extortion and if you look at the wider problem, if the families have to pay for the return, which is in the range of $300 to $400 per head, this will most definitely, invariably lead to further indebtedness of the families,” he said.
The cycle of trafficking, then, comes full circle, Hornung says. The family is forced to mortgage their house and in order to keep up with loan repayments they often have no choice but to send more of their children into clandestine labour markets.
It’s even worse for the victims. After all they have endured, the burden of responsibility for their family’s financial ruin weighs heavily on their shoulders.
“Just imagine if you have been on the high seas for years, you come back with no money in your pocket but $400 in debt, so you become responsible for the misery of the entire family,” Hornung said.
“We had one case of three of them just crouching outside the office, watching the traffic, unable to think, unable to talk. So you have cases in which people are really, really troubled.”
For Phal Chantha, who finally boarded a registered flight bound for Cambodia on May 22, 2010, his release was bittersweet; though his months of bondage had come to an end, his freedom had come at the expense of his family’s financial freedom.
He returned to Olympic market, working the same menial job for the same meager salary and escaped lifelong indebtedness and family resentment only because of the intervention of Licadho.
A few weeks after Sim Ek was reunited with his family, he was working for $2.50 a day scavenging for firewood in a forest not far from his home in Banteay Meachey.
But instead of coming home with money to support his family, he stepped on a landmine.
“I am the only one responsible for my family. What will happen to my family now,” he said, having lost most of his right leg and sustained serious injuries to both hands.
Extortion has taken everything from Sim Ek and he sees only one way out of the vicious cycle.
“I do not want live, not in this world.”