Cambodian men run slavery risk on region’s fishing boats

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Sok Sopheng was 21 when an employment agent offered him the chance of a job in neighboring Thailand.

As one of nine children from a small village in rural Cambodia, his prospects were limited. His family owned just half a hectare of land, and his father was ill with beriberi.

Along with three friends, Sok Sopheng (his name has been changed to protect his identity) decided to cross illegally into Thailand and get the promised factory or construction work paying $110 in U.S. dollars a month. But the four of them ended up virtually enslaved on a fishing boat.

The issue of male trafficking is generally ignored — though that is starting to change.

Manfred Hornung, legal adviser at Cambodian human
rights group Licadho, said that Sok Sopheng’s experience is typical of
more than 60 Cambodian men his organization interviewed who were
trafficked into slavelike conditions aboard Thai and Malaysian fishing
boats.

In rural Cambodia,
where many of the victims are recruited, the risks are not well
understood. Hornung said the process generally starts with an agent
visiting a village, where there is usually little work or opportunities.

Sok Sopheng and his companions were taken to Pak Nam, a fishing port 18 miles south of Bangkok.
It was only when they were locked in a guesthouse that they realized
something was wrong. Days later, they were sold to a fishing boat
captain.

Sok Sopheng told researchers from Licadho that they
were press-ganged onto the boat. The captain said they would get paid
once they had completed three years work.

Six months later, Sok Sopheng jumped ship.

Hornung said it works like this: “(The agent) approaches a group of young males to convince them to go to Thailand.
In most cases this broker won’t tell these youngsters that they have to
work on a fishing boat.” The victims are lured with stories of
construction or plantation jobs, which sound more promising than the
meager livelihoods available at home.

Once in Thailand, they are at the mercy of the agents.

Hornung stresses that not all fishing boat crews are
coerced, but that conditions on the worst boats amount to modern-day
slavery. He said the men are usually unable to escape because the
captains and Thai crews are often armed.

“Once they are on the boats, they have to work long
hours — in most cases these young fishermen tell us that they have
maybe two to three hours rest per night,” Hornung said.

They get meager rations of food, are regularly beaten and are drugged to keep them awake and working.

“We have had reports that men who fell sick were
thrown overboard,” he said, adding that many of the worst ships stay at
sea for months at a time, loading their catches onto motherships on the
South China Sea.

In one recent case, a Cambodian man was kept at sea for three years without seeing land.

“He was basically sold on the high seas from boat to
boat over a three-year period. And these cases are not infrequent,”
Hornung said.

Although little research has been done on the topic, a recent conference on migration in Phnom Penh did examine the subject.

Louise Rose, a victim protection officer for The Asia Foundation (TAF), a non-governmental organization, said that 100,000 men, women and children were deported last year from Thailand.

Among those were 258 men whom TAF questioned in what
remains the largest survey to date on Cambodian male trafficking. Rose
said more than 90 per cent of those men surveyed had worked on fishing
boats, and one in five of them had experienced the slavelike conditions
that Sok Sopheng encountered.

Researchers were keen to understand what motivated the men to leave Cambodia, as this would help them draft a program to protect others. Half of the men cited debt as a motivator in looking for work in Thailand. Even more blamed a lack of food.

“Three-quarters of the men reported not enough food
being a motivator for migrating,” she said. “And the other one that was
even higher again was no source of income. That was about 78 per cent.”

Lack of income and opportunity were what compelled Sok Sopheng to move. After jumping ship in Malaysia, he was sold to a plantation owner, where he was again forced to work for free.

It took Sok Sopheng another year to get home, where he now works as a farmer and part-time laborer.

Cambodia’s
economy remains weak, and prospects remain poor for the 350,000 young
people entering its job market each year. The agents scouring the
countryside are unlikely to run out of candidates for the region’s
fishing fleets any time soon.

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(c) 2010, Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany).

Visit dpa on the Internet at http://www.dpa.de/English.82.0.html

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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