Updated at 9:50 a.m. EST on 2012-02-13
At least 100 Cambodians have escaped from forced labor conditions on Thai fishing boats over the past year, according to rights groups, highlighting an increasing and dangerous trend in human trafficking in the Southeast Asian region.
All of them were found in Indonesia, where boats linked to Thai human trafficking syndicates usually anchor at a fishing port on eastern Ambon island.
Ninety-three of the Cambodians have been repatriated home.
Mom Sok Char of Cambodia-based nongovernmental organization Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW) said that his organization had received a number of telephone calls over the last year from Cambodian nationals seeking help in Indonesia after escaping from the fishing vessels.
“Since [the beginning of] 2011 there have been at least 100 victims rescued from Thai fishing boats,” he said.
Some of them had swum to shore in Ambon after jumping from their boats under the cover of darkness, while others were rescued in raids on the high seas by Indonesian naval vessels on the lookout for boats involved in illegal fishing.
Mom Sok Char said that Thai boats fishing legally and illegally off Indonesian waters commonly unload their catch for processing at Ambon island, though they rarely dock at the island in order to prevent forced laborers from escaping. Vessels from the shore meet the boats at sea to ferry the fish back to land.
“This is a vicious cycle—each time the previous victims escape, the captors receive new victims,” he said, adding that not only Cambodians, but Lao and Burmese nationals have also fallen prey to human traffickers who operate the boats.
Group of 14
Mom Sok Char said that LSCW’s representative in Indonesia had been contacted by the most recent group of 14 victims who had escaped between December 2011 and January 2012.
His organization coordinated the repatriation of seven of the victims funded by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM). The remaining seven are expected to be home next week.
The repatriated seven are now back with their families, while LSCW is seeking the trafficking ring leaders who had lured the men to Thailand with the promise of work before selling them to boat captains.
“The victims said some of them had worked in the boats for between one and six years. They said they were forced to work 24 hours nonstop without pay,” Mom Sok char said. “This is modern slavery.”
He said that some of the victims told him when the workers were sick their captors had simply dumped them into the sea.
Chris Lom, spokesman for IOM, told RFA in an interview that the organization’s Indonesian office repatriated 63 victims trafficked for work on Thai fishing boats in December 2011.
The group had escaped from their Thai captors when their boats were forced to dock on Ambon island.
Lom said that slavery in Thailand is on the rise and is cause for concern.
“What happens is they sign on to Thai fishing boats and then find themselves in very exploitative situations. Frequently, an agent will sell them to a Thai captain,” he said.
He added that the men are most frequently trafficked while aboard a vessel on the Andaman Sea off Thailand’s southern Ranong province, or on the Gulf of Thailand.
“Once they are on the boats, it is very difficult for them to escape. They frequently go unpaid and are often abused by the Thai captains,” he said.
“They can also remain at sea for a very long time—even several years—because Thai fishing boats commonly fish throughout the region.”
Lom said the fishing boats transfer and receive supplies from other boats, making it difficult for trafficking victims to escape.
Sometimes the victims are lucky enough to be rescued by the Indonesian navy as they intercept boats fishing illegally in Indonesian waters, leading to a confiscation of the vessel.
“In these circumstances, if the crews can contact the IOM or local NGOs to alert them that they were exploited in a trafficking situation, then we can sometimes help to repatriate them,” he said.
He said a very large number of young and uneducated Cambodian men end up on Thai fishing boats after becoming the victims of human trafficking, and he called on the Cambodian government to raise awareness of the issue.
The U.S. State Department last year ranked Cambodia a Tier 2 country in its 2011 Trafficking in Persons report, saying the government had failed to make progress in prosecuting human traffickers and protecting trafficking victims.
“Corruption at all levels continued to impede progress in combating trafficking and fostering an enabling environment for trafficking,” the report said.
About 200,000 to 450,000 people are trafficked annually in the Greater Mekong subregion, which includes southern China, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the countries joined by the Mekong River, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.