EIGHT migrants who said they were forced to work like “slaves” on a Malaysian fishing vessel were returned to Cambodia Saturday after spending five months in immigration detention, officials and rights groups said.
The migrants reported that they had each been held as virtual servants on the vessel for between one and three years before making a harrowing escape last December. Their stories are part of what rights groups say is an alarming trend of male migrant workers leaving the country in search of job opportunities, only to find themselves marooned on foreign fishing vessels with few resources and little chance of escape.
Ouk Sovann said he had been trapped on the vessel since 2007, after going to Thailand on his own accord when a neighbour in his home province of Banteay Meanchey promised to help him find a job that would pay 5,000 baht (US$155) a month. Instead, he said he was sold to the owner of a Malaysian fishing vessel.
“We were in the middle of the sea,” Ouk Sovann said. “We never saw the land. When we got sick, the boat owner did not care about us.”
He recalled witnessing a range of atrocities while on board. Those who were too sick to work, for instance, were thrown overboard, he said.
Another repatriated migrant worker, Vai Mab, said he also saw workers thrown overboard.
“We tried to work even though we were sick, because we were afraid that if we did not work, they would throw us into the sea,” he said.
The migrants said they made their escape only after the boat, in need of repairs, docked in Malaysia in December. Nine of 20 migrant workers on board fled during the night, said Vorn Vin, who spent two years aboard the vessel.
“We did not sleep. We waited until our boss fell asleep, then we ran away,” he said.
The group was held in Malaysian immigration detention until their repatriation last week.
Vorn Vin said he had carried with him a phone number for the rights group Licadho before he left the country. The NGO, along with other groups, worked with Cambodian and Malaysian officials to secure the migrants’ release. The ninth man who fled with the group remains in custody in Malaysia and is expected to be repatriated next month.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho, said the experiences reported by the eight men who returned Saturday are typical of other Cambodian migrant workers trafficked to foreign fishing vessels.
“Most of them go to work there because they are cheated by middlemen, who promise to help them work in Thailand,” Am Sam Ath said during a press conference.
“In fact they are sold to work in fishing boats. They work many years, but they are not given any money.”
Many migrants are victims of trafficking, but many also leave Cambodia willingly, he said.
“There is a poor standard of education, maybe a lack of information on what migrants face, and they think that it will be easier to find a job in Thailand,” Am Sam Ath said.
Advocates say it is difficult to quantify how many migrants are trafficked or leave Cambodia willingly to work on foreign fishing vessels. Some researchers have suggested the number could be in the thousands.
Officials with the International Organisation for Migration have suggested there could be at least 180,000 Cambodians unofficially working in Thailand across various industries.
And although migrant experiences may be mixed, other research has suggested that those working on fishing vessels face severe hardships. A 2008 survey from the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking found that although half of illegal Cambodian workers deported from Thailand interviewed as part of the study reported positive experiences, “the only labour sector that is an exception here is the fishing industry, which was 100 percent exploitative”.
Recently, recruiters have begun targeting younger Cambodians, said Ly Vichuta, director of the group Legal Support for Children and Women, which worked on repatriating the eight migrants who returned this weekend.
“The older people, now they know what will happen. They don’t want adventure anymore,” she said. “But the young people, they are willing.”
And while many returned migrants swear they will never leave the country to find work again after living through horrendous circumstances, some eventually try again because they are unable to find a job at home, she said.
Compared to female victims of trafficking, there are comparatively few resources in place to help men, Ly Vichuta said, with donor funding often directed towards women’s issues.
“I worry that when they come back, they will eventually decide to leave again if they don’t have job opportunities,” she said.
Bith Kimhong, the director of the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Human Trafficking Department, said Cambodian migrant workers in dire situations abroad should contact Cambodian embassies and NGOs for help.
“Our embassy will help them,” he said. “They can provide documents to travel to Cambodia if they don’t have a passport.”