Enslaved Fishermen Return to Cambodia After Ordeal

Fifty-nine Cambodian fishermen who spent years enslaved aboard Thai-captained fishing boats returned home Monday to be welcomed by their relatives at the Phnom Penh International Airport.

The Indonesian government rescued the men, along with hundreds of other trafficked fishermen, from the isolated island of Benjina in early April following an investigation by The Associated Press that revealed the island was serving as a hub for forced labor.

An employee of the International Organization for Migration loads bags belonging to repatriated fishermen into a van yesterday at the Phnom Penh International Airport. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
An employee of the International Organization for Migration loads bags belonging to repatriated fishermen into a van yesterday at the Phnom Penh International Airport. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Brett Dickson, a program manager at International Organization for Migration (IOM) Cambodia, which coordinated their repatriation with flights paid for by USAID’s Combating Trafficking in Persons project, said Monday that the fishermen would now spend the next few days in Phnom Penh, where IOM is providing accommodation for them, as psychologists begin to assess their needs.

On Thursday, the fishermen will begin returning to their homes, Mr. Dickson added.

The IOM on Monday cooperated with immigration officials to keep the fishermen out of the spotlight as a large throng of journalists and relatives awaited their arrival.

Kristen Dadey, a migrant assistance specialist with IOM Cambodia, said that keeping the fishermen away from the glare of the media was necessary to protect them.

“They are people,” she said. “They’ve been through a very traumatic experience; we don’t want their pictures all over the press.”

In earlier interviews, fishermen described vicious abuse at the hands of their Thai captains, who kept them captive on the boats while they trawled Indonesian waters.

Some were beaten with metal poles; others were kicked and punched, and when they asked to go home they would be told to jump in the ocean and swim back to Cambodia.

Sim Chhorn, 69, who traveled to the airport from Kompong Thom province to greet her 39-year-old son, said she was thrilled to be reunited, but upset that she didn’t get to see him exit the airport.

“My son left Cambodia about five years ago,” she said. “Yesterday my son called me to tell that he would arrive in Cambodia at around 4 p.m. I was very happy and excited. I don’t know why they did it like this—I wanted to meet my son immediately.”

Sara Piazzano, country director of the USAID-funded Combating Trafficking in Persons project in Cambodia, confirmed that her organization footed the approximately $40,000 bill to fly the 59 men home and would be assisting IOM to reintegrate the fishermen into society.

“This is just the beginning,” Ms. Piazzano said. “The hardest part is reintegration. Psychological support is very much needed.”

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