Thursday, January 15, 2009
By Jon Gorvett
International Herald Tribune (Paris, France)
Thung Yeap is one of the lucky survivors of a journey that starts in some of Cambodia's poorest villages and sometimes ends, fatally, in the waters of the South China Sea.
According to local law enforcers and international agencies, hundreds like Thung Yeap, mostly Cambodian farmers, have fallen victim in recent years to traffickers who turn them over to crews on Thai fishing boats, where they work without pay and often at gunpoint.
"It is an issue that needs urgent attention," said Lim Tith, national project coordinator for the United Nations' Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, or Uniap, in Phnom Penh. "It really is a kind of descent into hell."
Kept at sea sometimes for years, these men, who have typically paid to be smuggled into Thailand with the promise of good factory jobs, are often treated brutally, subjected to beatings and even death for any attempted escape.
Until recently their plight fell under the radar of regional law enforcement agencies. Far from shore, the abuse they suffer evades detection, and legal jurisdiction is murky. The victims themselves have often hesitated to seek help, fearing they could be prosecuted as illegal immigrants.
Only in the past year have Thailand and Cambodia expanded trafficking laws written to protect women and children who were sold or tricked into prostitution or other forms of forced labor to explicitly include men. The hope is that men who find themselves in another country as a result of trafficking will be more likely to approach the authorities and be given assistance, because they will be recognized as victims rather than illegal migrants.
Cambodia and Malaysia also recently signed a memorandum of understanding on combating trafficking, as many of the Thai fishing boats operate in Malaysian waters.
Thung Yeap was able to return home to Popok village in Kampong Thom Province last month because he escaped when his fishing boat made a rare stop in port in Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. The Malaysian authorities detained him as an illegal immigrant before sending him back to Cambodia.
He and Dorn Chenda, who is from Steung Saen village in Kampong Thom, ended up in the same detention center in Sarawak, and Uniap worked with the Cambodian human rights group Licadho to have them repatriated to Cambodia.
Kampong Thom is one of the country's poorest districts, blighted until just 10 years ago by fighting between Cambodian government troops and Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
"People live hand to mouth round here," said Prak Phanna, village headman of Anlong Kranh, a village near Popok. "We used to make some money cutting and burning trees for charcoal, but the government made this illegal recently, so we have nothing. I'd say most people maybe make $20 to $30 a month around here. So, when the young men can't make ends meet, they go to Thailand."
Chorn Theong Ly, also from Anlong Kranh, was among them.
"One day a middleman came to our village," he recalled. "He said he would take us to Thailand, where we could have an easy life, working in factories. He said we'd earn 4,000 baht a month there," an amount equal to $115. "So, we each paid him 3,000 to smuggle us across the border."
What followed was a nightmare.
"When we got to Thailand we were taken to a house in Samut Prakan" - a seaside province south of Bangkok - "and locked up there. We began to realize then that something was wrong. At 4 a.m. they came for us, the traffickers, and took us straight to the boats. It was then we realized we had been sold to a fishing captain. And by then it was too late to act."
Forced to work under the supervision of an armed Thai crew, the Cambodians - some of whom had never been afloat before - suffered terribly.
"We were all seasick, and I remember vomiting blood," said Chorn Theong Ly. "The captain beat me, too, using an octopus tentacle as a whip. I was beaten almost unconscious. I also saw other crew members killed, twice - one shot, the other beaten to death, when he refused to work."
The promised wages never arrived.
"After four months at sea," said Dorn Chenda. "I started demanding my wages. They told me they had sent them to my wife back in Cambodia. But it turned out they'd never paid her a penny."
The boats typically operate out of ports like the one in Samut Prakan.
"That is one place where there are many houses where the traffickers can lock up the new arrivals," said Manfred Hornung, monitoring consultant with Licadho. "They are brought there illegally, so have no papers, and are totally at the mercy of the traffickers."
The Thai police say they are aware of the practice but say that enforcement is difficult.
"When some do escape, they usually don't want to talk to the police," said Lieutenant Colonel Thakoon Nimsombun of the Thai Justice Ministry's Department of Special Investigations Anti-Trafficking Center, often referred to as DSI. "When they go back to Cambodia, they just disappear, and it's difficult to find them again."
Lisa Rende Taylor, chief technical adviser at the Bangkok office of Uniap, said that until the anti-trafficking laws were extended to cover men, there was little incentive for victims to cooperate.
"In one case, when a boat had put out to sea and run out of gas, many of the trafficked crew had died, with the bodies thrown overboard," she said. "When the boat was finally brought back to port, there was a big question as to what law to prosecute them under. The crew were classed as illegal immigrants, so how could they testify without being arrested?"
Another problem, said Police Colonel Akarapol Punyopashtambha of the DSI, "When the crimes are committed, they are out at sea, and there are a lot of jurisdictional problems there. They may be at sea for years, too, so it's hard to get to them."
Meanwhile, in Kampong Thom, the survivors of this ordeal at sea are now trying to come to terms with their experience.
"We were always thinking of escaping," recalled Thung Yeap. "There was no way, though. We were powerless. The sea itself was our prison."