Fourteen Cambodians forced by human trafficking syndicates in Thailand to work as fishermen in the deep sea have escaped from their captors under the cover of darkness, ending years of ordeal, officials said Tuesday.
Trapped on fishing vessels in the Gulf of Thailand and forced to work without pay, sometimes for years, the 14 men jumped off their boats and swam to shore in Indonesia, where they were held by local authorities before the intervention of the International Organization for Migration.
Seven of them had returned to Cambodia while arrangements are being made by the Cambodian authorities and rights groups to fly home the others as well, the officials said.
Anti-human trafficking and rights group officials are working closely with the men to track down those behind the trafficking scam amid reports that many Cambodians have fallen prey to human smuggling syndicates.
The seven men who had returned home this week were all trafficked from Siem Reap and Kampot provinces in Cambodia.
Eng Rong, 23, from Kampot province, said his captors worked the boat crew mercilessly.
“They didn’t torture me, but they forced me to work day and night without stopping,” he said.
And Chhut Doeum, a 33-year-old victim from Siem Reap, said he had worked on a fishing boat for two years before escaping.
“I escaped from a boat but they got me back. They took me back to work,” he said.
“I worked in the boat, fishing day and night. We went fishing every day.”
Mom Sokcha, program director for rights group Legal Aid of Cambodia, said efforts to return the men home were launched after he received a phone call from one of them who was held by Indonesian authorities.
He demanded that Cambodian authorities find the trafficking suspects and bring them to justice.
“Inside Cambodia there are fewer job opportunities, so the victims migrate to work overseas,” he said.
Pen Channa, an official with Cambodia’s anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection section of the national police commission, said police are working to apprehend the suspects.
Meanwhile, a number of families from Cambodia’s Kompong Chhnang province have filed requests with local authorities and rights groups for help to locate their loved ones who went missing after being recruited by a fishing company to work in Taiwan.
At least 23 complaints have been received of Cambodians missing at sea after being taken by trafficking syndicates.
Ky Thai, 48, said her 24-year-old son was recruited by Giant Ocean International Fishery to work in Taiwan, but had not been heard from since early 2011.
She said she had gone to the Giant Ocean International’s recruiting office recently only to find that the company had closed down.
“The company has already stopped operating, so I don’t have any information from my son. I am worried and I want him to return, so I filed a complaint with a rights group,” she said.
Sum Chankea, an official with local rights group Adhoc, said he had already received nine complaints against the company from villagers whose children went missing.
And Prak Saony, deputy director of the anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection department in Kompong Chhnang province, said police had received 14 complaints from villagers whose children went to work in the fishing sector in a number of different countries through Giant Ocean International.
“We are searching for the [human trafficking] ring leaders. Our initial investigation has revealed three ring leaders,” Prak Saony told RFA.
“We are requesting permission from the police commissioner to question them.”
Abused labor laws
An official from Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior said Giant Ocean International had been ordered to cease operations after the company was found to have abused Cambodian labor laws.
“The company was legally licensed, but they abused the law. After we received complaints from villagers, we filed complaints to the court to proceed with the case according to the law.”
Officials have asked the missing workers’ families to file complaints with police if their children were recruited by Giant Ocean International.
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 sub-region, 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 RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.