Friday, July 15, 2005

Kidnapped on the high seas

Lured with promises of work and money, Kouey Raksmey ended up enslaved for years on a Thai fishing boat. As Leonie Sherman explains, his story is just one of millions in the region, but with media and NGO attention focused on the flesh trade, few seem to have noticed.

After her son had been gone a year, Sarun Ma switched from praying for his return to praying that his soul would rest in peace. She had heard about the trafficking of men in Thailand and given up all hope of ever seeing him again.

Kouey Raksmey wasn't dead, but there were certainly times during his three-year ordeal when he wished he were.

In June of 2001, at the age of 21, the former nightclub singer signed up for a 10-to-15 day stint working on a Thai fishing boat. He was held as a slave for more than three years before finally making his escape in August of 2004.

NGO workers fear that the trafficking and exploitation of men on Thai fishing boats is widespread, but there are no reliable statistics.

"This is an area of trafficking that has been overlooked," says Ann Horsley, project coordinator at the International Organization of Migration (IOM). "There's so much anecdotal evidence, but ... the problem has not been sufficiently documented."

Since 2001, the IOM has records of almost 100 male fishermen who have been repatriated from Thailand, but the scale of the problem is likely to be far greater.

Globally, an estimated 12.3 million people are trafficked for labor with more than three quarters of that number coming from the Asia Pacific region, according to a report released by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in May 2005. The report estimated that less than 10 percent of labor trafficking victims in Asia and the Pacific end up in commercial sex work, while almost two thirds of them, or 6 million people, are coerced into working in fisheries, agriculture and other economic sectors.

The roots of such trafficking are usually lack of employment and educational opportunities in rural communities, and poverty. According to the 2005 ILO report, most forced labor in the Mekong River region happens after voluntary - if ill-prepared and uninformed - migration.

But behind the scant statistics are people with harrowing stories of hardship.

Koeuy left his small village near Battambang and headed across the border, drawn by promises of good money in Thailand. The captain of a fishing boat in Phuket gave him a job and promised they would return within 15 days.
He didn't see land again for six months.

As Raksmey recounts his story, his first week at sea was lost in a haze of seasickness so debilitating he couldn't eat or sleep. The 34 Cambodians and five Thai men on the boat were forced to work long hours, deprived of sleep, and received no pay for their exhausting labor. They ate only the fish they caught and meager portions of rice, often resorting to eating raw fish to avoid starvation.

When the boat finally docked six months later, the captain, Thay Chun, told the men that they would be arrested by police and thrown in jail as illegal immigrants if they tried to escape. Fear prompted all the men to remain on the boat. They left for sea three days later.

The captain feared the men might try to escape if they returned to Thailand, so he took the boat to Indonesia, but hit a submerged reef en route and was forced to return to Phuket in Thailand for repairs.

According to Kouey, a Phuket woman named Chhay Mouy owns the boat he worked on and six others just like it. The fleet, powered by crews of exploited laborers from Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, often fish illegally in protected waters.

In Phuket, Chun promised his crew members 10,000 baht each if they would stay and work for five more months. The prospect of earning a substantial sum of money was enough to keep all the men with the boat. The captain then gave each crew member $30, their first payment in almost a year. Kouey used his money to buy tobacco, noodles and a lot of coffee, which he says he needed to stay awake during the long hours of forced labor.

From Phuket, the boat headed back out to Indonesia, where they searched for fish for two months without luck. During stormy seas Kouey was hit in the arm by a piece of flying metal that smashed bones and tore open a long, deep gash in his right arm.

Chun accompanied him back to Thailand on a small boat, where doctors inserted a metal plate to replace the crushed bones in Kouey's forearm.

After six weeks in the hospital, Kouey was released into Songkhla province in southern Thailand. He heard that his boat was still out at sea and hitched a ride on another boat, determined to find his crew and the 10,000 baht that he was now less than two months away from collecting.

When he found the boat again, however, he was told he would need to work an additional five months to receive payment. Caught out at sea, with no means of escape and no money, he was at the mercy of his captain and remained with the boat.

The boat returned to Indonesian waters once more and was apprehended by the coast guard for fishing in protected waters. The owner bailed them out and the entire crew was released on the condition that they return to Thailand.

Chun ignored the order and kept fishing in Indonesia; soon the entire crew was behind bars, having been apprehended by the coast guard again. After a week in jail, the owner bailed them out once more, and this time Chun headed for Thailand.

When the boat landed in Rayong, Chun gave each crew member $100. Kouey and his friends - all 34 of the Cambodians - bribed Thai police officers to take them to the border. Because the crew had bought the protection of police, Chun was powerless to bring them back.

Horsley, the IOM projects officer, says intervention by Thai authorities is common.

"I've heard a number of stories of people being transported back to the border by Thai police," says Horsley.

. . . . .

While human trafficking for sexual exploitation is a hot issue that attracts aid money, the trade in male laborers has yet to capture the attention of donors and the general community. This leaves the men who survive the often grim ordeals isolated and vulnerable to repeating the cycle if they manage to escape their captors.

While some short-term programs have been developed to try to help specific groups of recently returned men, there are currently no preventative or rehabilitation projects in Cambodia.

A spokesman for the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on the issue, and a senior official at the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training said that it was difficult to protect illegal workers abroad. Neither source would speak on the record.

"Quite clearly, women and children are more vulnerable to trafficking because of cultural considerations," says Shelley Preece, advisor to the NGO Legal Services for Children and Women (LSCW). "But men are also vulnerable, particularly once they cross the border into Thailand. They have no money, no support system, they don't speak the language and they are often at the mercy of unscrupulous employers."

LSCW is working on a program in Trat, just across the Thai border from Koh Kong, aimed at helping migrants from Cambodia who work in Thailand. They hope to educate these migrant workers about the working conditions they are likely to find in Thailand and help them figure out strategies to migrate safely. LSCW will use community campaigns, leaflets and video campaigns to get the word out beginning July 15.

"We're only focusing on Trat because of limited resources," Preece says, adding that this problem is not limited to one town or province.

. . . . .

Lam Sowathara, a human rights monitor for LICADHO, looks at the wider context when he thinks about ways to deal with male trafficking.

"To fix this problem will be a big job," Sowathara says. "Education is the first part. The Ministry of Labor should create a curriculum to educate people in rural areas about this trafficking. Many of them cannot read, so perhaps radio can be an effective tool."

Ultimately, though, Sowa-thara believes the government needs to attract foreign investment and thus increase job opportunities for young men in Cambodia. He thinks changing the economic reality of young men in Cambodia could put an end to human trafficking across the Thai border.

"We need to create an effective legal system, an efficient banking system, and have peaceful political stability," Sowathara says. "Then we can create opportunities for foreign investment and create jobs for people here."

For those who do find themselves trafficked, getting back to Cambodia is not the end of the ordeal. Many men face crippling debt or feel a sense of shame that prevents them returning to their home village.

Kouey is lucky; he was welcomed back by relatives and is currently living in the family home.

Kouey's mother, Sarun Ma, is a cheerful woman whose face lights up when she talks about the day her son returned. "I've never been so happy in my life," she says, as she nurses the most recent of her eight children.

"We know what he went through is horrible ... so we try to just give him lots of time to heal. We're not rushing him to find a job or anything," Kouey's stepfather, Leng Yon says.

Kouey's mother and stepfather see only positive changes in him since his return.

"He was so feisty when he left," says Sarun Ma "Now he's all grown up, he understands his family is poor and [he] demands less," she pauses to laugh. "He's really helpful around the house, too!"

"Before he didn't think," adds his stepfather, Leng Yon. "Now he thinks about the future, he thinks about making a living and getting a job." He pauses and adds, "I don't see any negative changes; it's all been positive."
But despite the warm welcome home, Kouey finds it difficult to move on with his life and struggles with symptoms commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He can't stop thinking about the years of abuse on the fishing boat. He is unable to concentrate or hold down a steady job, and he is physically weak from the endless toil. He can't imagine getting married or having children and is afraid that his experience will haunt him for the rest of his life.

"I regret the mistake I made every day," Kouey says. "I could have gotten so much done for my family in those years. I wasted so much time."

Nowadays, Kouey is embarrassed by his lean physique and scarred arms and insists that nobody will employ him to sing on stage.

The shy man becomes more animated when discussing what he'd like to do to his former captives.

"If the captain and boat owner ever come to Cambodia, I will kidnap them and make them work in the fields, so they can understand how hard I worked," he says with a rueful grin. "... I will whip them like cows."

These bitter responses and feelings of low self-esteem are common reactions to a traumatic event, says Dr Sotheara Chhim, psychiatrist and managing director of the Transcultural Psycho-social Organization, a community health NGO operating out of Phnom Penh.

"These men were like slaves, they didn't get any payment and some were tortured severely. Many suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety."

Sotheara's team in Phnom Penh provides debriefing and encourages these men to talk about their problems in a supportive setting. He teaches them coping mechanisms and some relaxation techniques. Unfortunately, few people are aware that these services are available and free of charge.

Kouey isn't, and he fears the long-term effects of his capture.

"What I experienced might even be worse than what happened during the Pol Pot regime," Kouey says softly, shaking his head.

His mother, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, agrees.

"During the Pol Pot years, even when there was no food, we could catch insects to eat, but out at sea there's nothing ... to be so isolated at sea like that ..." says Sarun Ma, her voice trailing off.

"No matter what happens, I will love him," Sarun says. "I'll always love my kids, no matter what they do."

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