IOM Raising Funds to Return Rescued Fishermen

As 58 Cambodian fishermen rescued from slavery in Indonesia await their travel documents to return home, the intergovernmental body organizing their return is attempting to raise money to pay for their travel because the Cambodian government is not offering any funds for their repatriation.

The Indonesian government rescued the Cambodian fishermen, along with hundreds of others mostly from Burma, from the island village of Benjina three weeks ago following an investigation by The Associated Press, which revealed that the island served as a hub for forced labor.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is currently caring for them at a facility belonging to the Indonesian government in the city of Tual, on an island north of Benjina. Another 36 Cambodian fishermen remain stranded on Benjina.

“For us, we’re still fundraising to move them,” said Steve Hamilton, IOM’s deputy chief of mission for Indonesia. “But until they have travel documents, we won’t be planning their movement. We can’t plan travel until we have travel documents.”

Mr. Hamilton said that officials from the Cambodian Embassy in Jakarta have interviewed all 58 men in Tual and have promised to issue travel documents for them in early May.

But without the needed funds to move the fishermen, they cannot go anywhere.

“We are in active discussions with possible donors,” said Mr. Hamilton, who could not provide a timeline for when the funds—likely from Australia and the U.S.—would be secured. “With donors, it’s hard to have timelines. When we get it, we get it.”

Cambodia is a member state of IOM and has paid its minimum dues for 2015—an administrative fee of about $2,000. It has not earmarked any voluntary donations or offered to fund the repatriation of the rescued fishermen.

Mr. Hamilton estimated that a total of $2 million is needed to facilitate the repatriation and reintegration of about 800 fishermen, mostly from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, recently rescued from forced labor across Indonesia.

Mr. Hamilton added that it was normal, especially when dealing with Cambodia, for IOM to foot the bill to repatriate victims of human trafficking.

“Of course it would always be helpful [if Cambodia contributed funds], but it’s not up to us to comment on the availability of their budget,” he said.

Brett Dickson, a program manager at IOM Cambodia, said that about $40,000 is needed to pay for the travel of the 94 Cambodian fishermen.

“We are thinking of moving them by ferry from Tual to Jakarta,” he said. “Then by plane from Jakarta to Phnom Penh.”

The five-day ferry trip costs $80 per person and the flight costs $335, Mr. Dickson said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong declined to address why Cambodia would not be paying the $40,000 to get the fishermen home.

“Right now, officials from the Cambodian Embassy in Jakarta are working on this issue,” he said. “We are still working with the international organization. I cannot say anything other than this.”

One of the 58 fishermen, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Thursday from Tual that he has been away from his family for five years now and desperately wants to get home.

“I miss my family so much and I want to go back to Cambodia right now, but I don’t know how I can go,” the 29-year-old said.

The fisherman said he paid a broker in 2010 to smuggle him into Thailand, where he was sold to a Thai fishing boat captain and told he would be earning $215 per month for an eight-month stint trawling Thai waters.

But the captain left Thailand’s waters and held him captive on the boat for three years while it fished in Indonesian waters. The fisherman was never paid.

“The foreman beat me with a metal pipe, on my hands, head and body, because I struggled to work on the fishing boat and asked to go back home,” he said. His captain eventually dumped him on Benjina, where he was then stranded for two years before being rescued, the fisherman said.

The fisherman said that he is currently living in a large room with 57 other Cambodians, sleeping on mats on the floor.

Another fisherman said that the Cambodians were being provided with three meals per day and mostly pass the time playing volleyball.

“Right now, it’s very boring as we wait,” the 22-year-old, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said from Tual. He said he had been away from home for five years.

“I miss my parents very, very much,” he said. “I want to see them again.”

Sam Rainsy, president of the opposition CNRP, said that Cambodia was shirking its responsibility to its citizens by not providing the $40,000 to ensure the quickest possible repatriation of the fishermen.

“It is the responsibility of the government to rescue them,” he said. “Of course, if a international organization is willing to help, we would accept help, but we should not rely solely on the international organization alone.”

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