More than 200 Cambodians who were victims of human traffickers and endured years of hardship on Thai fishing boats returned home on Thursday, according to the Cambodian government.
Indonesian authorities had arrested the 230 Cambodians last month on Ambon Island, one of the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, when the Thai fishing boats they were on illegally entered Indonesian waters.
One charter flight transported 213 who landed at Phnom Penh’s international airport in the morning, while 17 others arrived on a second flight in the afternoon.
The flights were paid for by PT Maribu Industries Group, the company representing the Thai boats on which the Cambodians worked, according to the Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry, media reports said.
Some Thai companies reportedly have enslaved and exploited Thais and other Southeast Asians on fishing boats in Indonesia, which offers abundant fishing grounds.
In May, more than 100 Cambodian fishermen lured by promises of well-paid jobs were returned from the Indonesian island of Benjina, where they had been kept for several years in slave-like conditions.
The Cambodians who returned told RFA's Khmer Service that they had decided to work in Thailand because they lacked higher education to find decent jobs at home, but found that working on fishing boats was a miserable job because of harsh work conditions and dangers at sea.
“Anyone who wants to work on fishing boats, please don't even try,” said one pale and thin Cambodian who declined to be named. “There are big waves. Each trip would take about four to five weeks,” he said.
He said he received about 1 million riel (U.S. $242) a month, all of which he sent home to his family.
A report issued by Cambodia’s Labor Ministry indicates that the roughly 72,000 Cambodian citizens who work overseas generate about U.S. 1 billion annually.
Another worker said he had left Cambodia nearly a decade ago to work in Thailand in hopes of becoming wealthy, but all he had now were the clothes on his back and a suitcase.
“People told me that I would make money if I worked in Thailand, so I left my family and children,” he said.
One mother whose son had been gone for 10 years was waiting for him at the airport.
“When I saw him, I felt like I was reborn," she said, adding that she had assumed that he had died.
Cambodian government to investigate
Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and chairperson of the Secretariat of the National Committee for Combating Human Trafficking, Smuggling, Labor Exploitation and the Sexual Exploitation of Women and Children (STSLS), said the 230 Cambodians were victims of human trafficking, and that the government would take care of them.
“When we gather their experiences, we will disseminate them to all people so they are aware of the risks of migrating overseas for work,” she said.
Chhiv Phally Deputy Director of the Ministry of Interior's Department of Juvenile Protection and Anti-human Trafficking, said the government had hired buses to transport the returnees to their hometowns.
The government would investigate labor abuses in Thailand and try to apprehend the human traffickers involved in the case, he said.
“For many of these returning fishermen, they get met at the airport by government officials but not much more than that,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division told The Phnom Penh Post.
“Cambodia does little to prevent men from being trafficked, offers no practical help to get them off the fishing boats and then ignores them when they return home with shattered physical and mental health,” Roberts was quoted as saying.
Reported by Serei Mony for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.