Taing Ky* and his cousin were told they would be gardeners in Thailand, but instead they were forced to work on Thai fishing boats.
Each year, hundreds of Cambodian men, many impoverished farmers, are lured from their homes with the promise of better-paying jobs in Thailand, only to find themselves on Thai fishing boats plying the waters of the South China Sea.
"We were told we would earn good money," Taing Ky, 37, a father-of-five from Cambodia's Kampot Province, about 200km southwest of Phnom Penh, told IRIN. After six months, they managed to escape while the boat was offloading on Benjina island in northern Indonesia. There they were picked up by local authorities.
Thousands of Cambodian men are now believed to be working against their will in exploitative working conditions on long-haul trawlers well beyond the reach of law enforcement agencies, and often alongside Burmese men.
"It's slavery. There's no other way to describe it," Lim Tith, national project coordinator for the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), told IRIN.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), about 125,000 Cambodians are registered as working legally in Thailand, including more than 25,000 in the fishing sector.
But with formal migration costs becoming prohibitive and limited economic opportunities for Cambodians at home, it is widely believed the number of undocumented Cambodians in Thailand is significantly higher; many are trafficked.
Of the 89,096 Cambodians deported from Thailand in 2009 for illegal migration, more than 20,000 (23 percent) were reportedly trafficked, according to a 2010 UNIAP Human Trafficking Sentinel Surveillance.
And while about 31 percent of Cambodian fishermen deported from Thailand reported being trafficked, those on fishing boats far from Thai shores for up to a year at a time are more difficult to track and regularly drop off the radar.
"This is a big problem, but the cases we actually receive are really just the tip of the iceberg," said Lim Tith. "The true number of men being trafficked in this manner is much higher."
In addition, the problem appears to be shifting from Malaysia to Indonesian waters, where more and more men are now being reported, 25 this year alone, he said.
Those lucky enough to escape report 20-hour work days, food deprivation, regular beatings and threats at the hands of the crew, many of whom are armed.
"The captain had a gun. We had no choice but to work," said one survivor.
So bad are conditions that those deemed expendable are tossed overboard.
"Many of these men have been badly traumatized by what's happened to them," Mom Sok Char, programme manager for Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW), a local NGO and one of the first to monitor the trafficking of men, explained. "After months of forced labour, that's understandable."
Culturally, most men do not seek psychological support, he said, making follow-up and adjustment back into the community particularly difficult.
"More and more men are falling victim and this is a genuine concern of the Cambodian government," San Arun, chairwoman of the Cambodian Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking (COMMIT) taskforce, agreed. "It's not just women and children any more," she said, calling for greater regional cooperation on trafficking.
Thai action urged
Earlier this month, the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, called on the Thai government to "do more to combat human trafficking effectively and protect the rights of migrant workers who are increasingly vulnerable to forced and exploitative labour.
"Thailand faces significant challenges as a source, transit and destination country," said the UN expert at the end of her 12-day mission to the country.
"The trend of trafficking for forced labour is growing in scale in the agricultural, construction and fishing industries," she said.
While commending the Thai government with the enactment of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2008, she warned that the implementation and enforcement of the law remained "weak and fragmented", often hampered by corruption, especially among low-cadre law enforcement officers at provincial and local levels.
"Thailand must do more to combat human trafficking effectively," Ezeilo concluded.
Thai authorities say there is little they can do about the trafficked Cambodians working on Thai fishing boats, particularly when the alleged crimes occurred outside Thai waters, if they do not report it.
According to UNIAP, most of the deportees who were exploited choose not to report their cases due to fear of their broker, employer, or the police; a lack of understanding of their rights; and/or inability to speak Thai.
*not his real name
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions