Mr. Youn Yum. “When I left Cambodia to try and find work in Thailand I was unaware of the risks involved and how it would change my life forever. One of my friends in the village told me that he and a few others were planning to try and find work in Thailand and that his friend had arranged for somebody to meet us at the border in a few days time. I did not hesitate at the offer and after a few days passed we set off in search of the opportunities that are just over the border. After around three hours of driving we arrived at what we all thought was the border to Thailand and were met by a Khmer man, who told us that he had work for us on a cassava farm, and that we would be earning 4500 THB, around $130 per month each, with a room and food included.
Along with six other Khmers, I worked on that farm for one month, seven days a week from morning until night. One day whilst working, we were approached by a Thai man who offered us a higher rate of pay in Thailand as carpenters on a construction site for a very enticing wage of 7000 THB, $200 per month. We spoke between ourselves and were happy with the offer of more money and a change in the style of job, but very confused as we thought that we were already in Thailand, we were in fact actually still in Cambodia working close to the border.
We tried to find the farmer who had employed us but he was nowhere to be seen and had fled without paying us any money, so we were left with no choice but to accept the Thai brokers deal and make our way illegally over the border. We were told that there would be a charge for transportation to the construction site but that it could be deducted from our first months’ wage if we liked. We all agreed, and made our way excited by the offer into Thailand. After a very uncomfortable and long drive in the back of an old truck along with 10 other men we arrived at our destination. To my surprise we were not at a construction site, but a very busy sea port. We were told that unfortunately the site was going to be closed for three months and our broker had gone out of his way and had arranged work for us on a fishing boat. As most of us were now indebted to him we were left with no option but to go out to sea. It was only after sailing for two weeks into the middle of the ocean that the six other Cambodians and myself were told that we had been sold to the Thai’s. I complained to the captain and was severely beaten making it virtually impossible to work, eat or sleep. I tried to keep up with the others but could not and was beaten again and again, I thought that they were going to kill me. We sailed deeper into the ocean for another two weeks until I was told that we were now in Indonesian waters. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks to months my health got worse as did the constant beatings that I received for not being able to keep up with the other men.
After what seemed like a lifetime, (actually around nine months at sea) we arrived at an Indonesian fishing port. We were marched into a room on the ship by our captors all carrying guns, and told that we would be going out to sea again tomorrow on another boat.
I knew then that if I did not try and make my escape soon that the chances of me surviving another journey would be slim. I waited until it was dark and the others were asleep, and made my escape. I crept out of the room and of the boat; I swam to land and hid in the nearby forest until the following morning. I was scared of whom to trust and did not speak any Indonesian or Thai, tired, sick and hungry yet again I had no choice but to risk leaving the forest in hope of finding a way back to my homeland. After sitting in the undergrowth of the forest close to a small dirt track for a long time whilst I conjured up the courage, I saw a young woman and child walking down the track towards me and I made my move. The woman was frightened at first but helped me, giving me food, water and contacting the Indonesian embassy. She told me that I had to get to the nearest police station and that the police would help me. The Indonesian police were very kind men and let me stay within the police station for two weeks until the embassy arranged a emergency visa for me and sent me back to Phnom Penh. My ordeal at sea is over but my health gets worse week by week, I have no strength and cannot find any work in my country, I have a newborn baby a wife and no prospects for the future. Maybe I will try and find work again in Thailand.” Moung commune, Srey Snom District, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia.
Mr. Seuy Sann, 40. Three years ago, worried that his earnings as a builder were barely enough to feed his family, Seuy San began to contemplate his prospects over the border in Thailand.
Like the hundreds of thousands of his fellow Cambodians who migrate in search of work each year, he had a simple but powerful motivation: “I heard there were better jobs in Thailand and I knew that Thai bahts were worth more than Cambodian riels, so I decided to go.”
It was a decision that nearly cost him his life. After chatting with others in his village who had made the journey before him, San waited at the border for two days. When night fell on the second day, he crossed the border into Thailand and then waited another day on the other side. Eventually, a group of men appeared in a large pick-up.
“They used their mobile phones as torches to see which of us looked strong, then they laid us next to each other and on top of each other in the back of the pick-up,” says San.
“There were three layers of us, with the strongest at the bottom. There were about 20 of us in the back and they put a plastic sheet over us and told us not to make any noise.”
Eight suffocating hours later, the pick-up stopped in a forest and San and five other Cambodians were herded into a cage and “locked in so that the police wouldn’t find us”. Behind bars in an unknown forest in a strange land, the negotiations began. San and the others were offered $200 (£132) a month — far more than they would make at home — to work on construction sites in Bangkok.
They accepted, only to discover that they would have to pay their captors-cum-employers $80 for transporting them to the Thai capital, $80 for the correct documents, and $30 a month for basics such as mosquito nets.
After working on the site for a month and realising they would never get the salary they had been promised, San and the others ran away — and promptly got lost in the city. “
I asked a Thai taxi driver to take me back to Cambodia,” says San. “I gave him $12 but he drove off without me.” Desperate and exhausted, San headed into a police station. If he could get himself arrested as an illegal immigrant, he reasoned, they might just deport him home. But, not for the first time, things weren’t quite what they seemed. The policemen were, in reality, security guards, who turned San and a friend over to a man who said he could help them earn enough money to get back to Cambodia.
They spent two days in a strange house before being loaded into a container, which was loaded on to a truck for what San thinks was a 15-hour journey. When the container was opened, they found themselves on a fishing boat at sea.
“I worked on the boat for about a month, pulling in the nets and collecting the fish,” he says. “For the first two weeks, I still had some energy but then it faded as I was only sleeping for one hour a day. When we got tired, they gave us a powder to dissolve in water and drink. I threw it away the first time they gave it to me and the second time, but when they saw I hadn’t taken it the third time, they beat me. I knew if I didn’t take the powder, they’d kill me. I don’t know what it was, but when I took it, my energy came back and I didn’t need to eat any rice.”
The food and the drugs — probably amphetamines — weren’t enough to sustain all those on board. One day, the crew lost patience with a Laotian man who was too ill to work.
“They threw him overboard as an example to the rest of us. I was there for a month and I thought I’d die there. They said all the Cambodians on the boat would die.”
Had the boat’s cook not taken pity on the Cambodians and helped them to escape when the boat next put into port, San is sure that he and his friend would have met a similar fate to the Laotian.
Their luck held: after running off the boat and hiding in the bush, the pair eventually stumbled across some genuine Thai policemen who were kind enough to deport them.
While San’s experiences were extreme, they are not unheard of among the legions of Cambodians who head to Thailand in search of work each year. Estimates vary, but the total number of annual migrants is put anywhere between 660,000 and 1 million.
Without the right documents, the migrant workers are easy targets for sexual exploitation, forced labour and modern day slavery. They are also subject to political upheavals: in June last year, 220,000 labourers fled Thailand amid fears of a crackdown on illegal labour by the military junta.
Migration is common in San’s district, which lies about an hour from the city of Siem Reap in north-western Cambodia. So common, in fact, that he and two dozen others have gathered in the brightly decorated hall of a local temple to share their stories of trafficking and migration.
The self-help group is part of a safer migration programme run by the Italian NGO Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (GVC). The participants, who sit on mats close to a jumble of golden Buddha statues, offer the same reasons for leaving: there’s not enough work to enable them to support their families and even when there is, it’s seasonal and the wages are too low.
The men and women take turns to share their experiences and offer advice or just a sympathetic ear. Many, like San, had found themselves denied the salaries they were promised; others had fled the police and gone into hiding. One man said he had been cheated into handing over $200 for a fake passport in Phnom Penh; a woman had been fined 500 baht (£9.22) a day for being in the country illegally.
Stefania Pirani, who heads the Migra Safe Project for GVC, says the aim of the programme is not to discourage migration, but to educate people about the dangers they could face.
“People really lack basic information: they live in remote areas and all they know is that there’s work in Thailand,” she says. “The decision to go is made in a couple of hours and when people run out of money, they just get in a taxi and go over the border. They don’t know what a passport is or what it looks like.”
As well as facilitating the self-help groups, the project also informs people about how to begin the long, expensive and complicated process of getting a passport, and provides them with information and hotline numbers for the Cambodian embassy in Thailand.
Pirani says that while the regularisation efforts from both Thaiand Cambodian governments have helped to reduce the dangers facing migrants, far more still needs to be done to make migration simpler, cheaper and safer.
Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand need not only a passport, but a work permit visa, an overseas Cambodian worker card and an employment contract.
Although the Cambodian government launched a package in June that offered migrant workers all the necessary documentation — plus transport to the border and food — for $49, the true cost of working legally over the border remains far higher.
“As we know from the villagers, it has been very difficult to get a passport at this price due to the lack of clear and comprehensive information and corruption,” says Pirani.
“It’s not easy to estimate the total cost of the process, but we can say that it can go from $200 up to $500 — and can take from four to six months.” The average annual income in Cambodia is around $1000 (£665).
Given the cost, the delay and the need to apply in the capital, Phnom Penh, she adds, most Cambodians are still choosing to cross the border without the correct legal documents.
The Migra Safe Project, which has run for two years and reached around 40,000 people, can only do so much.
“If the procedures become easier and cheaper and there’s also the possibility of obtaining documents at a provincial level, the majority of migrants will become regular,” says Pirani.
“The Cambodian government also needs to enforce the laws that already exist to combat human trafficking and labour exploitation, and to respect UN conventions and action plans that have been prepared together with international organisations.
“Most of the time, some of the good initiatives and laws are only on paper and not enforced.”
She points out that both Cambodia and Thailand have much to gain from making migration as safe and easy as possible.
“There are, of course, positive effects for the economy of Thailand, a country that needs a labour force from its poorer, neighbouring countries,” she says. “In the medium- to long-term, there could be also great benefits for the Cambodian economy if there are instruments and policies in place to reintegrate those skilled workers in the country.”
Until then — regularly or irregularly — most of the participants in the self-help group are planning to return to work in Thailand. They have little choice.
However, Seuy San will not be among them: “I would never go back to Thailand, even if I had the right legal documents.” Mr Seuy Sann text courtesy Sam Jones / The Guardian. Photography: All rights reserved © George Nickels/European Journalism Centre / European Union.
Mr. Bot Loum. “I was approached by a man in my village who said that he had would be able to secure work for me in Thailand. The money that I could possibly earn was a lot better than I was making in Cambodia so I decided to leave illegally to Thailand and eventually worked as a fisherman in Indonesian waters.
The opportunity arose for me to work on a boat that supplied the other fishing vessels deep out to sea with oil and fuel, and that’s what I did, but after one month the boat was seized by the Indonesian police and I was arrested for selling fuel illegally in Indonesian waters.
I was made to work in an Indonesian port for one month before being taken to court and being sentenced to 15 months in prison. I was given medicine by the guards, at first I refused to take it but after being severely beaten on a regular basis I gave in and done as the guards asked. I was manacled hand and foot for the entire duration of my imprisonment and now my head feels confused and I have lost my memory due to the drugs that I was forced to take.
Near the end of my sentence I was visited by the Thai captain who I worked for previously, he helped me contact my embassy and ultimately secured my release. I am now unemployed and my family provide for me. Due to the sickness in my mind I have to take medication everyday to try and help me. I do not know what the future holds.” Poung Rou Village, Srey Snom District, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia.
Mr. Son Ron. “One day whilst I was sat in my home, a man came and offered me 4500 Baht per month to work as a fisherman in Thailand. I immediately accepted his offer as there was no work at that time as my district had an extremely dry year and there were no available jobs farming.
I worked for one year on the fishing boat and collected my pay. After 12 months at sea, I returned to Cambodia. As it was before, there was very little work available and the wages were very low, so I decided to make the trip again. This time things did not go as I had planned. After being at sea for another year, I approached the Thai captain and requested my salary, he told me that he had my salary and that I would receive it in the coming days. The days passed, and once again I approached the captain, but this time, all I remember is being hit hard over the back of the head, and waking up on a different boat with a different captain and crew. I had been sold as a slave.
I then spent the next 12 months at sea with the understanding that I would receive no pay, when I did mention the subject of money I was beaten with a big stick. One evening I was awoken with the sound of men shouting in a language that I did not understand, they burst into our sleeping area, tied my hands behind my back and ushered the others and me onto another boat. We were then taken to a police station on land; it was then that I realised I had been arrested. I did not understand anything that my captors said, but they were mostly kind men who gave me food and water and a blanket to sleep with. After around one week in the police station, I met another Cambodian man who informed me that I was in Brunei and being held in the police station before being sentenced and taken to prison.
Twenty days later, as told before, I was sentenced to 3 months in a prison somewhere in Brunei. I was allowed to make phone calls and contacted the Cambodian embassy, who told me that I would only do one month inside, and that they could help me secure my release. It was only when I arrived back in my homeland after serving my complete sentence that my family told me that they had been charged 28,000 Baht around $700 for my flight back to Phnom Penh. I was now In Cambodia with no employment and heavily in debt with my family as they had to sell some of their livestock and take out a loan. I was yet again left with no choice but to try my chances of working illegally in Thailand again. After one month of working on a construction site I was arrested again and spent six months in a prison in Bangkok. I will not take the same risks as I have previously, but I am very poor and have no opportunities in Cambodia.” Poung Rou Village, Srey Snom District, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia.
Mr. Roum Touch. After one month at sea, we arrived in a Malaysian port, I saw my chance and I escaped. After hiding in the jungle for two days I was tired and hungry and I decided to try my luck at finding work, hoping to earn enough money to sustain myself and get home to Cambodia. Luckily I secured a job packing fish in a port further down the coast from were I had escaped my captors. After two months, I felt I’d earned enough money to pay my way back on to a boat back to Thailand; this was the first of many obstacles on my journey back to my homeland. After seven days and seven nights at sea, we eventually arrived at the Thai port where I left the ship and found a taxi to take me to the closest border with Cambodia. Ten minutes into the drive I started to get very paranoid that I was being followed by two motorbikes; my instincts were correct and shortly after the taxi was pulled over by two men and I was told that they had arranged another taxi for me. I was taken to a house, given clean clothes, food and locked in a room for two days. When my captors finally came back I was given two choices: go back to the fishing boat or go to prison. I chose the fishing boat and spent another month onboard working virtually non stop, along with 15 other Khmer men that were under the control of two armed thai captains. As soon as the opportunity came I escaped for a second time and eventually made it back home to my wife and child. I feel lucky to be alive.” Moung Tboung Village, Moung commune, Srey Snom District, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia.
George Nickels is a freelance photojournalist, and the focus of his work covers social conflict and humanitarian issues across Asia. His in-depth photography and editorial provide an often un-reported aspect of current affairs and news. His work has been published in the leading magazines and newspapers worldwide including Vice, The Guardian, The Huffington Post and The Globe and Mail to name a few. Based in Cambodia, George is available for freelance commissions, specialising in the Southeast Asia region.