FIVE Cambodian men living in virtual slavery on a Thai fishing boat have escaped bondage, jumping ship in the open sea before being rescued by fishermen from East Timor, government officials and rights workers said Thursday.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for local rights group Adhoc, said the men fled the boat on January 21 after one of their compatriots fell ill at sea and died, his body tossed overboard by the crew.
“When they saw the fisherman’s dead body thrown into the sea they were frightened, and that’s why they jumped into the sea to flee,” Chan Soveth said, explaining that his organisation had received information on the case from UN authorities in East Timor.
Chan Soveth said the five men were aged 26 to 35 and hailed from Takeo, Kampong Cham and Battambang provinces. He said their names were Phuong Siem, Hun Tom, Hun Sokong, Hel Tay and Lean Thay.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said the government had recently learned of the men’s plight, and was working with East Timor and Indonesia, site of the Kingdom’s nearest embassy, to secure their return.
“We have contacted the governments through our embassy [in Jakarta] to have them send those people back,” Koy Kuong said.
John McGeoghan, project coordinator with the Phnom Penh office of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said IOM staffers in East Timor and Cambodia were working with the countries’ respective governments to repatriate the men as quickly as possible.
“The men have been referred to us for assistance by the migration service of [East Timor] and are currently being provided assistance by IOM and [East Timor’s] Ministry of Social Solidarity,” McGeoghan said.
The men appear to have fallen victim to human traffickers, McGeoghan said, based on the false promise of work opportunities across the border in Thailand.
“Preliminary interviews with them suggest that they were promised construction jobs in Thailand,” McGeoghan said. “Others were promised jobs carrying fish on the shore from boats in Thailand.”
When they initially boarded the fishing boat, McGeoghan added, the men were told they would be at sea for three to four months. They learned only later that they were expected to work for four years.
While comprehensive data on the issue is nonexistent, trafficking experts say Cambodian men have quietly but consistently fallen victim to scams that land them adrift on Thai fishing vessels, labouring for little to no pay in brutal conditions.
“There is a continual flow of cases,” said Manfred Hornung, a monitoring consultant for the local rights group Licadho, estimating that his group has dealt with around 60 similar cases in the last year and a half.
Licadho is currently working to repatriate “six or seven” Cambodian men who escaped from their ships and made contact with authorities in Malaysia in December, Hornung said.
Lim Tith, national project coordinator for the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), said his group was working to secure the return of 15 others from Malaysia.
Despite these successes, however, Hornung said there are “a large number of cases that are completely unaccounted for”.
Lim Tith guessed that the number of Cambodians trafficked onto fishing boats is in the thousands, and McGeoghan said victims had surfaced “quite regularly over ... the past five years”.
One challenge in reaching these men, McGeoghan said, is that even when they are able to escape their original captors, they are often afraid or unaware of government agencies that can help them return home. Some are “trafficked between boats” and don’t see the shore for years at a time, he said, whereas others reach land only to fall prey to other forms of bonded labour.
On the ships, Lim Tith said, men are often drugged or beaten as captains seek to exact as much work each day as possible.
“The treatment on the ship of the crew is so cruel and inhumane that they just want to get off at any opportunity,” Hornung said.
There is still “some room for progress”, Hornung said, and regional governments have made significant improvements in recognising and processing these cases in recent years.
International enforcement as well as domestic poverty reduction are central to the fight against male trafficking, Lim Tith said, pointing also to the
need to raise awareness about this phenomenon.
“Normally when people talk about human trafficking, they are talking about trafficking girls and women for sex,” he said. “Men are also victims of labour trafficking. Men are also victims of human trafficking.”