Thirty-nine victims of human trafficking were repatriated to Cambodia from Indonesia Tuesday, but refused to provide details of their ordeal to the media, prompting concerns from civil society groups that they had been ordered to remain silent on the issue by local authorities.
Among the group were 38 Cambodian migrant workers who had been held captive on Thai fishing boats off of Indonesia’s remote Benjina island and one Cambodian woman who was trafficked to work as a house maid in the country, according to an official statement issued ahead of their return.
As the 39 trafficking victims left Phnom Penh International Airport, reporters questioned them about how they had been sold into slavery and their experiences while in captivity in Indonesia, but were informed by members of the group that they were “not permitted to speak” to the press.
They did not specify who had ordered them to remain silent about their ordeal.
Ya Navuth, director of local nongovernmental organization Caram Cambodia, which campaigns for migrant workers, told RFA’s Khmer Service that it was imperative for trafficking victims to discuss their experiences in order to help others avoid falling into similar traps.
“Journalists should be allowed to meet the victims and help make their story heard,” he said.
“People need to know how they became victims of human trafficking and what tricks the brokers use to lure them into leaving the country in search of work abroad.”
However, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesman Kuy Kuong told RFA that authorities had not instructed the victims to withhold information and suggested they simply did not want their stories to be published by the media.
“[The authorities] wanted them to speak to the journalists—to retell their life and sufferings,” he said.
“Discussing it is better, as it provides lessons for other Cambodians.”
Interior Ministry secretary of state and general secretary of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking Chou Bun Eng also expressed concern that the 39 were “withholding information,” which she said could “make it very difficult to arrest the brokers and rescue other victims.”
Little or no options
In recent months, hundreds of Cambodians who were trafficked to work as slaves on Thai fishing boats illegally operating in Indonesian waters have been rescued and repatriated through cooperation between Cambodia’s embassy in Jakarta, Indonesian authorities and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
In May, Meourn Tola, the labor program chairman of Cambodian NGO Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), welcomed the rescue and repatriation of victims, but warned that thousands of Cambodian victims of human trafficking remain trapped on Thai fishing boats.
He told RFA that many Cambodians risk seeking work abroad because they have little or no options at home.
Meourn Tola said wages in Cambodia are too low, the amount of farmland is inadequate and many people lack capital to start their own businesses.
He also called on the government to provide vocational training to repatriated trafficking victims.
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 Tha Tha Kitya for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.