Robert Carmichael | Phnom Penh 26 May 2010
Thai fishing boat (file photo)
Women and children are commonly believed to be the main targets of human traffickers. But in Cambodia, scores of men have recounted stories of modern-day slavery on board Thai and Malaysian fishing boats.
Manfred Hornung, a legal adviser with the Cambodian human rights group Licadho, says that although figures are very limited, it is possible thousands of Cambodian men have been trafficked onto regional fishing boats in recent years.
The group has interviewed more than 60 men who were trafficked onto Thai fishing boats since 2007. Their stories typically begin the same way.
“Normally these young fellows are approached by a local broker who works through connections in a commune or a village and approaches a group of young males to convince them to go to Thailand,” said Hornung. “So, in most cases this broker won’t tell these youngsters that they have to work on a fishing boat.”
Instead they are promised jobs in construction or on plantations, then smuggled into Thailand. According to Hornung, once there, some are taken to a fishing port, where they are locked in guesthouses and eventually sold to fishing boat captains.
Conditions on the worst boats amount to nothing less than slavery said Hornung. And the young men have few ways to escape since the captain and Thai crew are often armed.
Victims say they get two or three hours sleep each day, are beaten and drugged to keep them working. Human rights advisor Hornung has heard reports that men who fell ill were thrown overboard.
Declining fish stocks close to land mean many boats spend months at sea, docking only with mother-ships to unload their catch. That makes escape impossible.
“In a current case, we have one person who stayed consecutively for three years on a boat without seeing land,” said Hornung. “He was basically sold on the high seas from boat to boat over a three-year period. And these cases are not infrequent.”
Hornung estimates the range of time people are enslaved on boats runs anywhere from three months to several years. And he adds none of the 60 men the group Licadho interviewed received any pay for their work.
Experts say Cambodia’s poverty drives most of the trafficking in the country.
Louise Rose, a victim protection officer for The Asia Foundation, says a survey of 258 Cambodian men – most of whom worked on foreign fishing boats – found that debt had driven half to seek work abroad. But two other factors were even more significant.
“Lack of food was a huge one,” said Rose. “Three-quarters of the men reported not enough food being a motivator for migrating. And the other one that was even higher again – no source of income. That was about 78 percent.”
One in five of the men in the Asia Foundation survey said they had worked in slave-like conditions on Thai and Malaysian fishing boats.
Thailand’s multi-billion dollar fishing industry demands a supply of cheap labor. And the stories of some Cambodian men indicate unscrupulous agents and ship owners are prepared to meet that need in any way possible.
Anti-trafficking groups say the solution is for regional governments to work harder to protect migrant workers and to prosecute those guilty of abuses.
But that is not happening. In Cambodia, activists say, the laws against trafficking are weak, and until the laws and law enforcement improve, many young men here will remain at risk of forced labor abroad.