PHNOM PENH - With downcast eyes and rough hands from years of hard labor, Thin Seangly's experience is a cautionary tale for thousands of other impoverished Cambodians who want to seek better jobs and wags overseas.
Seangly, who hails from Prey Veng province, is one of tens of thousands of Cambodians who leave their country every year, forced by poverty to seek wages in the richer nations of Thailand and Malaysia.
But the journey is not without risks and ends in disaster for many, including Seangly, who left Phnom Penh after being promised better wages on a fishing boat in Thailand. Instead, he found himself trapped for six years in a remote region of Indonesia working without wages and no hope of escape.
Lim Mony, deputy head of Woman’s and Children’s Rights program, said every year many Cambodians are tricked into working abroad.
“They go through Thailand. They were tricked to go to Thailand. Then they were taken to a boat not to be sent to Thailand but to Indonesia,” she said.
Kousoum Saroeuth, governor of Banteay Meanchey province, which borders Thailand, said the people who left the country without legal documents are vulnerable to being abused by employers. He said that people keep leaving after they see their neighbors making money abroad.
“They saw some go, so the others followed,” he said.
He said that despite a campaign to encourage people to have legal documents there are still some who have tried and managed to cross the border illegally.
Legal Migration Key to Preventing Abuse
Yim Vireak, deputy secretary general of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking in Persons, said it is important for workers to give their information to family members, NGOS, or anti-human trafficking groups.
“In general if [people] do not want to be abused [they] go legally,” he said.
He added that it is very important that before workers go they should learn about the country they want to go to and contact Cambodian authorities.
He said that officials do not have accurate numbers of the people who went to work illegally.
“They go illegally, so it is hard for us to monitor,” he said.
Phnom Penh set up a new program to facilitate the legal documentation of migrant workers after Thailand last year sent about 250,000 illegal workers back to Cambodia.
Rights advocate Lim Mony said that to solve the problem, the government has to find jobs for Cambodians with fair wages.
“Solve the problem of land dispute, and land concession, and solve the problem of the agricultural products that fetch low prices,” she said. She added that social fairness and the right to get social equality should be available to everyone regardless of their economic status.
She said the problem of social justice is also part of the reason Cambodians risk their lives working in other countries.
“When they have [a] problem, the court doesn’t solve them. [The court] understands only the rich and does not help the poor, which makes them hate their own country… Some have already been victimized. Some have been victimized to a light degree, and some have not been victimized yet,” she said.
Lim Mony added that Cambodians from the provinces of Kampong Cham, Siem Reap, Battambang and Prey Veng usually take the risk of working in other countries.
Scores of Cambodian Workers in Thai Fishing Fleets
In just the past six weeks, more than 200 Cambodian workers have been rescued from being trafficked and forced to work on boats.
Sara Piazzano, the head of USAID’s Countering Trafficking in Persons project, said that a large number of people are working abroad in slavery like conditions.
“Only in Thailand there are approximately 400,000 men employed on fishing vessels. Most are from Myanmar and Cambodia and many work in exploitative situations,” she said. “Other Cambodian fishermen are employed on Taiwanese or Chinese vessels and we have rescued people from countries such as South Africa, Mauritius and Fiji.”
Piazzano said that in the last four years the CTIP Project has assisted 1,100 victims from being trafficked, most of whom are fishermen.
Only from one to five percent of the people in slavery are rescued and assisted globally every year, she added.
The challenge, she said, is to reach the victims and to bring them out of slavery. “Human trafficking is a profitable business that is difficult to defeat,” Piazzano said.