Four years of hell at sea

By: Ethan Harfenist and Cheang Sokha

Like many Cambodians before him, Sopheap*, 29, moved away from his home country in search of work and a better life in neighbouring Thailand. His brother was working in construction and suggested he come join him. Sopheap agreed, and left his home in Kampong Cham’s Prey Chhor district.

He went through the motions: He arranged to be brought to Thailand with a broker, and planned to join his brother working in construction. But his pursuit of happiness abruptly ended once he was in the Land of Smiles. After losing contact with his brother, Sopheap was offered work on a fishing boat, instead. He accepted, despite never having worked as a fisherman before.

“I was then taken to work as a fisherman on a Thai boat,” Sopheap said in an interview yesterday from Tual, Indonesia.

“I was told that in only 15 days I would be able to return.”

But 15 days turned into more than four years of nonstop work, hellish conditions and threats from both his captors and fellow fishermen.

Sopheap was among the more than 300 Thai, Myanmar, Laotian and Cambodian fishermen freed by Indonesian authorities earlier this month from Benjina, a remote island village in the east of the archipelago, following a devastating report by the Associated Press. The investigation exposed the slave-like conditions for those forcefully kept on Benjina and working on mostly Thai-owned trawlers: living on little more than daily nibbles of rice and curry and being caged up lest they tried to escape.

“On the boat, there were 17 workers – among those, five were Cambodian, and the rest were Thai,” Sopheap said. “We were sometimes threatened by the Thai workers . . . We lived in fear on the boat, but we had no choice . . . We had to be patient and keep working hard.”

On Tual, 58 Cambodians – many of them likely trafficked – are waiting in limbo to return home. Officials from the Cambodian Embassy in Jakarta have visited twice, said Sopheap, and promised the fishermen that they would be home by early May.

Joe Lowry, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), confirmed Wednesday that embassy staff have “visited all the Cambodians [on Tual] . . . They’ve started to verify citizens and issue travel documents.”

However, the IOM recently discovered that among 210 men still left on Benjina, there are 36 Cambodians. They have yet to be paid a visit from their government.

A spokesperson at Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be reached for comment.
US-based NGO Freedom House on Wednesday presented written testimony to a congressional hearing on “Tier Rankings in the Fight Against Human Trafficking”, skewering the Cambodian government’s response to the issue, but adding that the country is taking baby steps toward tackling it.

“High levels of corruption and poor rule of law in Cambodia continue to foster a thriving environment for internal and cross-border trafficking,” wrote Freedom House president Mark Lagon.

He added, however, that while Cambodia has restructured its National Committee for Counter-Trafficking and it is “encouraging to see the government of Cambodia take more steps to address trafficking”, more pressure must be applied.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan dismissed Freedom House’s claims, saying he “didn’t trust them because they work for someone else”. He cited Cambodia’s reformed trafficking laws as proof that the government was trying to combat the practice.

But for those who have spent years living as virtual slaves, all they can think about is getting home.

Taing*, 27, another Cambodian from Siem Reap’s Chi Kraeng district, slaved away on a separate boat for six years.

“On the boat, I worked very hard and there was no time to relax,” he said. “For one or two months, we went to shore for a few days. But then we went back to sea for further fishing.”

“I want to go back to Cambodia . . . I want to work and help my parents,” he added, maintaining that he never planned on trying to work abroad again.

For Sopheap, his return can’t come soon enough.

“This experience has been so painful for me,” he said. “I will never go back [abroad].