Rescued Slaves to Return From Indonesia Monday

With 59 trafficked Cambodian fishermen who were rescued from the Indonesian island of Benjina due to return home on Monday, Cambodian Embassy officials in Jakarta are preparing to visit the island to verify the identities of 36 others who remain stranded there.

The Indonesian government rescued the 59 Cambodians, along with hundreds of other trafficked fishermen, from Benjina in early April following an investigation by The Associated Press that revealed the island had served as a hub for forced labor. In interviews with The Cambodia Daily, the Cambodian fishermen said they had been enslaved on Thai-captained fishing boats for years, and either escaped onto the island or were dumped there.

In a statement issued Friday, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the Cambodian officials in Jakarta were working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to identify the 36 Cambodians who remained on the island.

“Embassy officials and IOM will directly interview them on May 12 in order to repatriate those 36 laborers to their homeland,” the statement says.

“Regarding the case of 59 laborers…recently saved from illegal fishing boats, the embassy has closely cooperated with IOM to repatriate all 59 laborers on May 11.”

The statement also mentioned a third group of 32 Cambodians awaiting repatriation from Indonesia, but did not elaborate on their circumstances.

Contacted Sunday, Mr. Kuong said the 32 could be fishermen who were rescued from elsewhere in Indonesia. “Maybe,” he said. “I’m not sure. But the embassy and Indonesian government just found them.”

Joe Lowry, regional spokesman for IOM, said the organization had no information about the 32.

In interviews last week, the fishermen who are due to return to Cambodia on Monday told similar stories of how they ended up on Thai-captained fishing boats trawling Indonesian waters.

Phoeun Sokchea, 36, said by telephone from the Indonesian city of Tual that a man he knew only as “Mr. Sroy” visited his village in Kompong Cham province’s Chamkar Loeu district in 2010, offering lucrative eight-month fishing jobs in Thailand.

Mr. Sokchea, who was told that around $600 would be sent to his family upon his arrival in Thailand, jumped at the opportunity along with three of his relatives.

“Mr. Sroy said that when we arrived at the Thai boss’ house, we would receive 20,000 baht [about $600] each,” he said. “But the Thai boss gave the money to Mr. Sroy and Mr. Sroy did not send the money to our families.”

Mr. Sokchea said he was then forced to work on a fishing boat and never paid a salary.

Prum Saroeun, 28, said that in 2009, he, too, was approached in his village—in Preah Vihear province’s Rovieng district—by a man offering high-paying jobs in Thailand.

“The ringleader told us that we would get 800,000 riel [about $200] of salary [per month], so I agreed to go because I did not have work in Cambodia,” Mr. Saroeun said, adding that he did not receive his promised wages.

Mr. Saroeun said he traveled with five other men from his village to Poipet City in Banteay Meanchey province, where they joined at least 60 others who were then smuggled into Thailand by a Cambodian soldier. The Cambodian soldier handed them off to a Thai man, who loaded them into a truck and drove them to the coast, he said.

Yin Vuthy, 33, said that he and four of his neighbors heard there was money to be made in Thailand and so traveled to Poipet City on their own in 2009. Once there, a man offered to find them temporary work on a farm or in a factory.

But once in Thailand, Mr. Vuthy said, they were taken to a port and forced onto fishing boats at gunpoint.

“When we refused to work on the boat, a Thai foreman showed us a handgun and began putting bullets in it,” Mr. Vuthy said. “Once we saw that, we agreed to board the boat.”

(Additional reporting by Alex Consiglio)

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