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How Poverty Pushes Many Cambodians Abroad

Thin Seangly stands outside his home in Phnom Penh (P. Bopha/VOA News)

Sitting with downcast eyes and the rough hands of hard labor, Thin Seangly stands as a warning for thousands of other impoverished Cambodians who want to seek better jobs and wages overseas.

Thin Seangly, who hails from Prey Veng province, is one of tens of thousands of Cambodians who leave the country every year, forced by poverty to seek wages in the richer nations of Thailand and Malaysia.

But the trip is not without risks and ends in disaster for many, including Thin Seangly, who spent almost six years forced to work on a fishing boat without wages or the ability to leave.

He left Phnom Penh after being promised high wages on a fishing boat in Thailand, but soon found himself trapped in a remote region of Indonesia with no hope of escape.

Lim Mony, deputy head of the women and children’s program at the rights group Adhoc, said every year many men are tricked to work abroad. “They go through Thailand,” she said. “Then they were taken to the boat not to be sent to Thailand but to Indonesia.”

Kousoum Saroeuth, governor of Banteay Meanchey province, on the Thai border, said that the people who leave the country without legal documentation are vulnerable to abuse by employers. But people keep leaving, after they see their neighbors making money abroad. “They saw some go, so the others followed,” he said.

Many do so illegally, despite a campaign to have people registered and documented, he said.

Yim Vireak, deputy secretary-general of National Committee for Counter Trafficking in Persons, urged workers to give contact information to family members or NGOs before leaving for work abroad.

“In general if [people] do not want to be abused, [they] go legally,” he said. They should also study up on the country they will work in and contact Cambodian authorities there.

Officials do not know the number of people who have gone abroad to work illegally, he said. “They go illegally, so it is hard for us to monitor.”

Phnom Penh recently set up a new program to facilitate legal documents for migrant workers, after Thailand last year sent about 250,000 illegal workers back to Cambodia.

Lim Mony said that to solve the problem, the government must find jobs and fair wages for people.

“Solve the problems of land disputes and land concessions, and solve the problem of the agricultural products that fetch low prices,” she said. Social fairness and the right to get social equality should be available to everyone, regardless of their economic status, she said. The problem of social justice is also part of the reason that Cambodians risk their lives working in other countries.

“When they have a problem, the court doesn’t solve it,” she said. “[The court] understands only the rich and does not help the poor, which makes them hate their own country.”

“Some have already been victimized,” she said. “Some have been victimized to a light degree, and some have not been victimized yet.”

Lim Mony added that Cambodians who take the risk of working in other countries are mostly from the provinces of Kampong Cham, Siem Reap, Battambang and Prey Veng. Many live in homes so ramshackle that they barely stand up, she said.

In the last few weeks, some 200 Cambodian workers have been rescued from trafficking operations abroad, where they were forced to work on fishing vessels. Many had been promised jobs in Thailand, but they wound up working off the coast of Indonesia.

Sara Piazzano, the head of USAID’s Countering Trafficking in Persons project, said that a tremendous number of people are working abroad, under slave-like conditions.

“In Thailand there are approximately 400,000 men employed on fishing vessels,” she said. “Most are from Myanmar and Cambodia, and many work in exploitative situations. Other Cambodian fishermen are employed on Taiwanese or Chinese vessels, and we have rescued people from countries such as South Africa, Mauritius and Fiji.”

Piazzano said that in the last four years the CTIP project has assisted 1,100 victims from being trafficked, most of whom are fishermen.

Only from one to five percent of the people in slavery are rescued and assisted globally every year, she added. The challenge remains to reach the victims and to bring them out of slavery, she said. “Human trafficking is a profitable business that is difficult to defeat.”