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Monday, May 10, 2010

The dangers in trafficking Cambodian men

Tens of thousands of Cambodians cross into neighbouring countries each year in search of work. But agreeing to work abroad illegally can be dangerous not least for men who are generally not seen as being at much risk.

Presenter: Robert Carmichael
Speakers: Louise Rose, victim protection officer, The Asia Foundation; Manfred Hornung, legal adviser at human rights NGO Licadho

CARMICHAEL: The phrase 'human trafficking' commonly conjures up images of women and children sold into servitude, bonded labour or brothels.

But men are of course trafficked too, although until recently the issue of male trafficking in south-east Asia was ignored and unstudied.

But at this hotel in Phnom Penh, delegates have gathered for a conference on the issue of regional migration, with a particular focus on Cambodia.

Louise Rose works as a victim protection officer for The Asia Foundation, an NGO, and spoke to delegates about male trafficking.

She says in recent years the issue of Cambodian men being trafficked onto fishing boats in Thailand and Malaysia has gained some attention, but information about the scale of the issue is limited.

Rose says the most comprehensive study to date is of 258 men who were returned to Cambodia through the southern province of Koh Kong. Most of the men had worked on fishing boats in Thailand.

She says the men - who represent just a fraction of more than 100,000 Cambodian men, women and children deported from Thailand each year - were asked about their motivations for migrating.

Researchers found that debt drove half to leave Cambodia and look for work. Two other factors were even more significant.

LOUISE ROSE: Lack of food was a huge one. 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.

CARMICHAEL: No jobs, no food, low skills, limited land, and few opportunities for the 350,000 young people entering the job market each year mean there is a large supply of ready labour in rural Cambodia.

Manfred Hornung is a legal adviser with human rights NGO Licadho. Over the past three years Licadho has interviewed more than 60 men brought back to Cambodia who were trafficked onto Thai fishing vessels.

He says the men's stories have a common thread, starting at the point where an agent turned up in their home village with promises of work.

MANFRED HORNUNG: So in most cases this broker won't tell these youngsters that they have to work on a fishing boat. They'll tell them he will find work for them in the construction sector or on a plantation in Thailand. In most cases they are promised well-paid jobs.

CARMICHAEL: The men are smuggled across the border into neighbouring Thailand, and then down to Pak Nam fishing port 30 kilometres south of Bangkok.

There they are locked in guesthouses until they are sold to the captains of vessels in Thailand's multi-billion dollar fishing industry.

Hornung says conditions on board the fishing boats can be horrific. And since the captain and Thai crew are often armed, press-ganged fishermen from Cambodia, Burma or Laos have few options.

MANFRED HORNUNG: A very typical story then is that 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; that they receive very meagre rations of food, that they are constantly beaten; they are drugged because they have to work long hours; we have had reports that men who fell sick were thrown overboard.

CARMICHAEL: In some cases, matters are so bad that the men jump overboard at night and try to swim to land. That's what three Cambodians did off the coast off East Timor in February this year. Luckily they were rescued by local fishermen and are awaiting repatriation.

You might think it would be easy enough to jump ship when fishing boats reach port. But the decline in fish stocks means some boats stay at sea for months, and make contact only with mother-ships onto which they offload their catch.

The solution will require better cooperation among governments in the region, improved services for migrants, and education about the risks involved.

But until that happens, unscrupulous agents, corruption, poverty and a lack of jobs mean more of Cambodia's youth will experience this version of 21st century slavery.

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