Nearly 200 Cambodian fishermen have been rescued from Thai fishing boats operating from the Indonesian island of Ambon in a joint operation between Cambodian and Indonesian authorities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Friday.
The latest group brings to 317 the number of Cambodian fishermen who have been rescued from what they have described as slave-like conditions following an Associated Press (AP) report in March exposing an exploitative fishing ring based on the Indonesian island of Benjina.
“The Cambodia Embassy has cooperated with Indonesian authorities to rescue 199 Cambodian laborers from Thai fishing boats on island of Ambon, Indonesia,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said.
“Because the 199 Cambodian laborers do not have passports, the embassy will issue travel documents and intervene for Thai fishing boat owners to pay salaries and fees for traveling to Cambodia at the end of June,” the statement said.
Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said that he did not have details about how the Cambodians were located or the conditions from which they were being rescued.
“I don’t have detailed information, but most went [to Indonesia] through Thai fishing boats,” Mr. Kuong said, adding that some of the rescued fishermen had spent up to four years working on the boats.
Brett Dickson, a program manager at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Cambodia, which assisted with the repatriation of 59 Cambodian fishermen from Benjina, said the organization had not received any official information about the latest group of 199 on Ambon.
But he said some Cambodian fishermen on Ambon had been there for years.
“There are Cambodians there, but some have been there for a while,” he said. “Fishermen have been there a long time and integrated with some of the locals, the Indonesians.”
Paul Dillon, a project manager for IOM in Indonesia, said the organization was prepared to assist the group on Ambon if formally asked to do so.
“The Cambodian embassy has been in contact with us regarding this situation in Ambon,” Mr. Dillon said in an email.
“We have not received a formal request from the government of Indonesia to assist, but as part of IOM’s broader mandate we are prepared to render assistance if asked,” he said.
Mr. Dillon said he could not confirm how many Cambodian fishermen were found on Ambon or offer information about the general situation of fishermen on the island, which has its own airport and is located in the Banda Sea.
Some of the fishermen rescued from Benjina who have already returned to Cambodia described being tricked or forced into working on Thai-captained fishing boats on which they were beaten if they refused to work grueling hours for days on end.
A number of the men said they fled the boats only to find themselves stranded on Benjina and scraping to get by.
The AP report in March described slave-like conditions for migrant workers—mostly from Burma—on the boats operating off Benjina, which was used as a labor hub and a prison for men who were deemed flight risks by their captains.
“They said the captains on their fishing boats forced them to drink unclean water and work 20- to 22-hour shifts with no days off,” says the AP report, which was based on interviews with more than 40 slaves on Benjina.
“Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest,” it continued. “In the worst cases, numerous men reported maimings or even deaths on their boats.”