Trafficked Fishermen Return Home, but the Risks Remain

Boat captains administered beatings, killed crew members in front of them, returnees say

As far as Chhoeng Heap is concerned, his son is back from the dead. One of seven trafficked Cambo­dian fishermen repatriated yesterday, Nao Vuthy spent eight months on a Thai fishing trawler un­der hellish conditions.

Their captains beat them, force-fed them amphetamines to make them work upwards of 20 hours a day and killed crewmates in front of their eyes. Unaware of his whereabouts, and with no word from their son for eight months, Mr Vuthy’s parents assumed their child had died. And then he called.

In his village, 12 young men signed up with a broker who promised them a very small fortune to work in Thailand. Mr Vuthy is the only one to return. “The parents of the others, they heard he [our son] called, and they asked us what happened to them [their sons]. But we don’t know,” Mr Heap said.

Despite the horrors they faced, the seven men who walked out of Phnom Penh International Air­port Friday and into the arms of teary family members and a scrum of aid workers and repor­ters are undoubtedly lucky. They managed to escape while others remained.

“I want everyone to keep this in mind: Do not believe anyone if they persuade you to work illegally abroad [a ship] to get a high salary,” said Tith Sopheak, a worker from Battambang province, speaking shortly after arriving in Phnom Penh on Friday.

“There, life was so hard…. I saw Thais kill Khmers in the Malay­sian sea. When I saw this, I thought if my life is still of value, I have to try and escape.”

Another trawler worker, Sum Barang, said that he felt reborn. “I was so happy when I landed in Cambodia. This time, I am a newborn.” There are no reliable figures on how many Cambodians work as fishermen on the high seas.

The Thai government is at­tempting to regulate migrant labor through a registration pro­cess, but only about 5,300 Cam­bodians have been registered. The number likely represents just a fraction of those employed on ships.

“Until Thailand gets serious about reforming its recruitment processes and prosecuting fishing boat owners and captains that use trafficked men, there will likely be little progress in addressing this nightmarish situation that has brutalized far too many Cambodian men and boys already,” said Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy di­rector of Human Rights Watch.

Andy Hall, a migration expert at Bangkok’s Institute of Population and Social Research, said while international interest has ratcheted up pressure to regulate the fishing industry, neither country is near where they should be.

“Both governments are starting to take the issue more seriously, mainly because of increased media and UN agency/diplomatic interest, but there is a very long way to go. The fishing industry con­tinues to be a hotbed of trafficking and a largely unregulated industry where abuses against particularly migrant workers from [Burma] and Cambodia are rife and very serious indeed.”

Education campaigns to warn Cambodians about the risks involved are gaining ground, say experts, but whether the message is sticking is less certain.

“We heard about the risks for migrant workers. We tried to stop our son, but he wouldn’t listen,” said Mr Heap.

“I appeal to the other Cam­bo­dians. Even if they get a small salary, they should stay and work in Cambodia. They should stay with their family.”

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