Thin Seangly quit school when he was 16 years old, to help his father earn money. Most of the boys in the village where he grew up, in remote Prey Veng province, did the same.
His dream job was to be employed as a driver for one of the thousands of NGOs that operate in the country. “When I was young, I just wanted to be a driver,” he said in a recent interview.
After his father borrowed a hefty sum of $1,000 to build a new house for the family, Thin Seangly, the eldest, left his home for Phnom Penh, to help repay the debt. There, he sold coconuts from a cart he pulled around the city. In 2009, a man approached him with promises of good work and good pay on a Thai fishing boat. And that was when Thin Seangly’s troubles began.
He left Cambodia without legal documentation, crossing the Thai border in the night. He walked with dozens of others, led by a middleman, outside of the border city of Poipet. After an hour of walking, they met with a bus, which took them to a boat. He was assured there he would be paid a salary of 6,000 baht, about $178, per month.
Then they put out to sea, eventually arriving near Benjina Island, off the coast of Indonesia. On some days he could spot at least 10 other boats. Others, up to 40. Most of the fishermen on Thin Seangly’s boat were Cambodian. About 10 others were Thai. They were all forced to work, night and day. They stayed out three to four months at a time. On good days, they would catch many fish, from nets that Thing Seangly would help throw out and haul aboard.
He often asked the captain about the money, which he was told was being sent to his home. This would keep it from getting stolen, the captain said. His contract would finish in three years, the captain said, and then we would have all his money. Eventually, Thin Seangly became homesick, and he grew tired of working so hard for so long. When he asked to go home, he was told he could not. He was worth a lot of money, the captain told him.
Thin Seangly began to lose hope. One day, in 2012, he was severely beaten by another Cambodian man, who cracked his skull. There were no doctors, and the wound had to heal on its own. Thin Seangly by then was afraid of being killed aboard that boat, so he decided to escape. He left his boat one night, and found another captain that would take him on.
The new captain was kinder than the old one, and even paid him every three or four months, when they went ashore. The crew were “also trafficked people,” Thin Seangly said, “but this one was nicer.” The crew would get cursed out sometimes, but not beaten. But even then, Thin Seangly thought of escape. “I wanted to run,” he said, “but I did not know where to go. I had no hope at all that I would be able to return to my own country.”
Finally, after reports earlier this year of the slave-like trade that was occurring off its coast, Indonesia cracked down. In May, authorities on a small island where many fishermen were staying, Thin Seangly among them, offered them a chance to go home. About 300 fisherman were saved this way.
Thin Seangly was reunited with his family. His father, Kay Klov, a 45-year-old farmer, who still owes money on the new house, said he is happy to see his son returned. “When I saw him, I was so thrilled that I couldn’t say a word,” he said.
Thin Seangly now has work at a factory in Phnom Penh, earning $128 per month. He still dreams of being a driver. He has new skills, he said. “I can speak some Thai.”