More than 70 men who were seized in Indonesian waters after they were allegedly forced to work on Thai fishing boats remain in limbo as efforts to return them to Cambodia have met with resistance, officials said this week.
The 71 men—who have not yet officially proven that they are Cambodian citizens—likely were lured to Thailand with promises of good jobs but ended up being trafficked or smuggled and forced to work on Thai fishing boats, officials said.
“If they are Cambodian and they want to return, we must help them return,” said Long Visalo, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Tuesday.
Indonesian authorities arrested the men about two months ago after the Thai fishing vessel they were working on “violated the fishing waters of Indonesia,” Long Visalo said. The authorities in Indonesia detained the men until April 3, when they released the Thai fishing boat and its crew and sent it back to Thailand.
The Thai vessel, which was scheduled to return to Thailand on April 7, reportedly was delayed due to poor weather conditions. According to Long Visalo, the Thai ship made it safely to Thailand a little before the Khmer New Year, which started on April 14.
The fate of the 71 men, however, remains unclear, since none of them has official documents proving Cambodian citizenship. Recently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official from the consular department to check on the suspected Cambodians and help bring them back to Cambodia if repatriation is appropriate, Long Visalo said.
“They have no Cambodian identification—their sole ID is their language,” Long Visalo said, adding that all of the men were fluent in Khmer.
It is not unusual for victims of trafficking to have no official documents to prove their nationality. In a recent case, Cambodian officials rescued and released 37 Vietnamese girls and women from brothels in the Svay Pak brothel district, yet not a single one had official documentation. As is often the practice, the traffickers steal the victim’s passports or visas to further coerce them to work.
But unlike cases of trafficking of women and children, instances of men being coerced and forced to work in foreign countries receives little attention or funding, said Mohammad Alnassery, officer in charge at the International Organization for Migration.
“There is interest in the trafficking of women and children, but when it comes to men, [donors] have no interest in funding programs,” Alnassery said Monday.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted IOM in early April to assist in the repatriation of another nine Cambodians who allegedly escaped from a Thai fishing boat in Indonesia, Alnassery said. Although Long Visalo gave assurances that Indonesian and Cambodian authorities are “preparing to send them back to Cambodia” no efforts have been made yet to bring them to Cambodia, Alnassery said.
The nine men remain in Indonesia, officials said.
Indonesian Ambassador Nazaruddin Nasution declined to comment on the case, saying “we have received no notification of the immigration from the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
It would have cost the IOM between $700 and $800 to repatriate the nine Cambodian trafficking victims, yet no donors would help fund the repatriation, Alnassery said. He did not name the donors.
“In every case we couldn’t secure money,” he said, adding that most instances of Cambodians being found working on fishing vessels in foreign waters are trafficking cases.
“They are not well fed, they receive no financial compensation and sometimes are thrown off the boats when they collapse” from exhaustion, Alnassery said.
In May 2001, for example, 76 Cambodians held in Indonesia were repatriated after almost a year in detention. The Cambodians were found on Thai fishing vessels in Indonesian waters, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time stated that they were trafficked to Thailand and forced to work in “slave-like” conditions, according to previous reports.
Approximately 300 foreign ships, thought to be from Thailand, are illegally fishing in Indonesian waters, said Indonesian Governor T Rizal Nurdin in a July 2002 Jakarta Post story.