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54 Men Finally Home After Harrowing Months at Sea

After a harrowing four months spent on Thai boats, 54 men who were trafficked to fish on these boats are finally home. This is the first case of labor trafficking that IJM has supported in Cambodia, and it highlights the complex coordination necessary to fight this cross-border crime.

Slavery and human rights abuses in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia have been widely reported. IJM started a project earlier this year to combat the labor trafficking crisis from within Cambodia, where we have been working and training officials for 15 years.

Traffickers use deception, threats or violence to trap people in forced labor slavery. In Southeast Asia, men are frequently trafficked across borders and trapped on fishing or shrimp vessels.

In this case, 54 Cambodian men took jobs to work on Thai ships and were told they would be fishing, legally, in Malaysia. Instead they were carried into Indonesian waters, where authorities seized the ships and sent the men to a detention center for illegally poaching fish.

Bewildered, hungry, and stripped of their meager possessions, including phones and documentation papers, the men spent one month in a cramped detention center. It was here where they met the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Over the course of two weeks in June, IOM coordinated a multi-organization effort to repatriate the men back to Cambodia and determine what had happened on the high seas.

IJM provided input and technical support to IOM and Cambodian anti-trafficking police as they interviewed the men.

One by one, the men shared how they worked long, labor-intensive hours casting nets and hauling fish onto the boats. They slept in small spaces, restlessly, for fear of drowning in the rough waters. The Thai captains only gave out small allowances and held onto their documentation papers, so the men could not stray far from the boat when it docked to refuel.

“We are glad to have been a part of bringing these men home and ensuring they are safe. They remind us of the many others still trapped and in need of rescue, but this case has shown us that the Cambodian public justice system, led by the Cambodian anti-trafficking police and National Committee, are committed to combatting this issue,” said IJM Cambodia Director Peter Williams. “We are excited about our continued work together, alongside other agencies of goodwill such as IOM, CCPCR, Caritas and CENTRAL who assisted the men in this case.”

IJM is working with authorities to see if they can trace the Cambodian recruiter that might still be preying on impoverished men and women seeking work outside the country. We are also working with several other NGOs to make sure the 54 men have support as they reunite with their families and find safe jobs.

Learn more about IJM’s USAID-funded partnership with Winrock in the Cambodia Countering Trafficking-in-Persons program.

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