Four Cambodian men trafficked into forced labor on South African fishing boats were repatriated on Thursday, completing their escape from nearly a year of slavery at sea.
The four were greeted by their families as they arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh, following coordinated efforts by Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Migration Organization to bring them home.
Officials said the victims had been forced to work without pay for nine months for the South African-owned Giant Ocean International Fishery Co. Ltd.
Like many other impoverished Cambodians, the four men—Seng Sokha, 25, from Kampot, Chap Sinath, 21, from Siem Reap, Phan Chanden, 34, from Kompong Cham, and Chea Nara, 24, also from Kompong Cham—had fallen prey to human smuggling syndicates while seeking work opportunities abroad.
Chea Nara told reporters he had been promised lucrative fishing work in Japan but instead had been sent to South Africa.
“It was very hard. I worked in the middle of the ocean,” he said.
He said he had begun working for the company in October 2011 and his employers told him he would be given his wages only after 12 months. He never received any payment for his work.
“I was forced to work even in the rain and sometimes they beat me, especially when I had first started,” he said.
Nov Chun, the father of trafficking victim Seng Sokha, said he had only let his son leave to work overseas because their family was poor and thought he would be sent to Japan.
He added that the company had promised U.S. $200 a month for the job but his son never received any of it.
“I appeal to all Cambodians who are working overseas to return and work in Cambodia. I am very disappointed that I was cheated into allowing my son to work in South Africa,” Nov Chun said.
Huy Pechsovann of the Community Legal Education Center, a Cambodian NGO that worked with officials to bring the victims home, said this case was a serious violation of human trafficking laws and that his group is preparing to file a suit for compensation.
“The company took them to South Africa, where they were exploited. We are providing lawyers for them,” he said.
In 2011, more than 100 Cambodian men forced into labor on Thai fishing boats were repatriated after escaping from their traffickers or being rescued during raids, the U.S. State Department said in its 2012 global Trafficking in Persons report.
In June, the agency honored Cambodian trafficking victim Vannak Anan Prum, who suffered years of forced labor on fishing boats in Thailand and on a plantation in neighboring Malaysia, as one of its “Heroes Working to End Modern-Day Slavery” for artwork he published about his experience.
Precise figures on human trafficking in Cambodia are hard to come by, but the country is known to be a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking.
A primary destination for trafficking victims from Cambodia is neighboring Thailand, where an estimated 100,000 Cambodian migrant workers are living illegally.
Many of them are recruited with the promise of better wages, but soon find themselves deceived about payment and length of service, and without any rights as illegal residents.
In Takeo district in southern Cambodia’s Takeo province, villagers told RFA many young men are leaving their hometowns to seek work in Thailand due to poverty.
Ouch Soeun said he sent five of his children to work in Thailand and two of them, who had gone to work in construction, were cheated and returned home with no earnings.
“I didn’t want them to work to go overseas but I couldn’t help it because of the high cost of living,” he said.
Another villager, Som Chanthu, said she left home to work in Thailand with the expectation that the country had well-enforced labor laws and high salaries, before she ended up in police custody and returned home.
Reported by So Chivi and Savborey Ouk. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.