Dozens of formerly enslaved Cambodian fishermen who were stranded on a remote island in Indonesia will be repatriated early next week after they were rescued by local authorities working in tandem with Cambodian Embassy personnel, an official said Friday.
The 59 Cambodians were among more than 300 men trafficked to work as slaves in the fishing industry and were recently freed by Indonesian authorities on the island of Benjina following an investigation by the Associated Press into the seafood industry.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung said Friday that the 59 had been issued travel documents and would be repatriated to Cambodia on May 11.
“The Cambodian fishermen worked on Thai fishing boats—they were trafficked there after being promised construction work, but the traffickers took them to work on the boats,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Kuy Koung said Thai traffickers had told them they would only work on the boats for a few days before returning to the mainland, but instead kept them—along with others from Myanmar, Thailand and Laos—against their will in filthy conditions docked at the island.
“They were on the boats for years,” he said.
Kuy Koung said Cambodian authorities are working to arrest those responsible for trafficking the men in Thailand.
Moeun Tola, senior officer with Cambodia’s Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) told RFA that nongovernmental organizations are working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to assist the men when they return home.
A number of NGOs had agreed to provide them with temporarily shelters, food and fees for lawyers to file complaints against their traffickers, he said, adding that the traffickers had worked in tandem with corrupt border officials to smuggle their victims.
The IOM said earlier this week that the men would be moved to the Indonesian capital Jakarta before being flown to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh via Malaysia.
Cambodian officials also plan to interview 36 people currently trapped on Benjina on May 12, before repatriating them as well, according to a statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
There are currently 32 additional Cambodian trafficking victims in Indonesia who have been rescued from other forms of enslavement and are awaiting repatriation, the statement said.
It added that three women from Cambodia who had been trafficked to Malaysia to work as maids were also recently rescued and would return home on Saturday with tickets purchased for them by the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
The women are seeking compensation from their traffickers.
According to Thai civil group Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN), between 3,000 and 4,000 trafficking victims remained to be rescued after being enslaved on Thai boats in Indonesia—many of whom are trapped on islands in the region, while others are fearful of leaving and surrendering years of back wages that were never paid to them.
Last June, the U.S. downgraded Thailand in its annual report on human trafficking and Thai authorities have scrambled to crack down on trafficking rings within its fishing industry in response.
The European Union has also threatened to ban seafood imported from Thailand—a trade estimated at U.S. $500-700 million—if the situation does not improve.
Reported by Taing Sarada for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.