LESS than two years after Prum Vannak, a migrant worker, crossed into Thailand via Poipet, he returned to Cambodia a victim of human trafficking.
The 36-year-old Banteay Meanchey province native followed his friend into Thailand in 2008, lured by the promise of a lucrative job in a factory.
His friend’s contacts were waiting for them at the border. They took him to the coast and put them on a boat.
“People in the boat told us that we were cheated by a broker,” Prum Vannak recalled this week.
“They sold us to work on a fishing vessel in the middle of the sea, so we had no choice. We had to work on the boat.” Conditions on the boat, he said, were “like hell”: Work was gruelling and nonstop, the food was never enough, and he never got paid.
When he saw an opportunity to flee as the boat made a rare stop in Malaysia, he took it. He had spent more than a year working for nothing on the vessel.
“When we escaped from the boat, we asked Malaysian police to arrest us,” he said. “We wanted to be held in prison more than working any longer on the fishing boat.”
We wanted to be held in prison more than working any longer on the fishing boat.
Prum Vannak is among the thousands of people who become victims of human trafficking every year in the Kingdom.
In an unpublished study conducted last year by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, almost one-quarter of deportees interviewed while returning through Poipet were identified as trafficking victims.
The study’s researchers say the random sample can be extrapolated to represent a population size of 100,000.
The Ministry of Interior reported last year that more than 89,000 deportees were returned through Poipet – the study suggests that more than 20,000 of them could have been trafficking victims.
UNIAP study suggested, based on interviews, that men were particularly vulnerable: They were twice as likely to have been cheated or trafficked. This statistic might reflect the fact that women are more likely to migrate with family members, rather than friends or brokers.
Migrants who worked in the fishing industry, as Prum Vannak did, were also more likely to have been trafficked: 31 percent of interviewees who fell into that group had been trafficked, compared to an overall figure of 23 percent.
Experts who work on trafficking issues say it is difficult to comprehensively quantify the magnitude of the trafficking problem in Cambodia.
“Most of the cases are very blurred,” said Bruno Maltoni, a project coordinator with the International Organisation for Migration in Cambodia. “You have cases where people voluntarily leave the country and are trafficked away, so it’s very difficult to see the point where migrant workers become trafficking victims.”
Manfred Hornung, a legal adviser with the rights group Licadho who has worked with trafficked migrant workers, said there will always be people who are trafficked and resold who will never appear in any statistics.
“The numbers are important, but they are very, very difficult to come by,” he said.
For his part, Prum Vannak said he will never look for work abroad again, even if his job prospects here are slim.
“They just cheated us. They never paid us,” he said. “It’s better to find a job in our own country.”