After slavery, trafficked fishermen face lonely road to recovery

Migrant fishermen from Myanmar work on a boat after returning from the ocean to Ban Nam Khem, December 14, 2014. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

By Astrid Zweynert PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When hundreds of fishermen were rescued from a life of slavery on Thai fishing boats off the coast of Indonesia earlier this year, the world took notice. Trafficked and sold to work on the boats, the men - mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia - had endured beatings, abuse and torture. After they were freed, however, they had little support to help them recover from the horrors they had experienced. "Everyone is shocked when they hear about the conditions on these fishing boats - but then what? No money is available to help them after they've been rescued," said Lisa Rende Taylor, director of Project Issara, a public-private alliance to tackle trafficking in Southeast Asia's supply chains. Donor countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development allocate about $120 million each year to combat modern slavery - a sum dwarfed by the $150 billion in estimated profits each year from the human trafficking industry. Governments and donors mostly fund support for women and girls trafficked for sex, but there is little money for male trafficking survivors, many of whom have suffered and witnessed extreme violence. Trafficked fishermen are forced to work up to 20 hours a day, endure beatings and sexual assault, and have seen injured colleagues thrown overboard and left to drown, researchers have found. Deprived of pay, those able to return home are penniless, making them feel worthless. "Male survivors tend to feel a crushing sense of shame that they, as breadwinners, come back with nothing," said Nicola Pocock, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "A lot of them return to poor rural areas and find limited job opportunities, which is why they migrated in the first place," said Pocock, who co-authored the largest ever study into the health of trafficking victims in Southeast Asia, published earlier this year. The study found that 57 percent of men trafficked for work on fishing boats and other forms of forced labor showed symptoms of depression, while 46 percent suffered from anxiety and 41 percent were affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. PRESUMED DEAD After many years away, some trafficked men find their wives have remarried and their families have long assumed they had died because no money was ever sent home. The welcome home may be mixed, said Mike Nowlin, of Hagar Cambodia, a charity that helps rescued Cambodian fishermen find work, deal with their trauma and reunite with their families. "Often families don't understand the horrific environment that the survivors were in, and are only aware that their family members were not sending money home as promised," Nowlin said. "They (the men) may be asked why they were away for three, five or 10 years and bring home nothing to support the family." Some choose not to go home at all for fear of rejection or because they may have been unable to contact their relatives. Daren Coulston, a New Zealand-based anti-slavery campaigner who has provided assistance for trafficked Indonesian fishermen, said many were reluctant to discuss their trauma. "I learned that many of them had been cheated of their wages, subjected to beatings and in some cases, sexually assaulted by the ships' officers," Coulston said. "It's hard to talk about these experiences for men. Most of them rather pretend it never happened," said Coulston, a former deep-sea fisherman. "But for their mental health, they need all the help and support they can get." Rende Taylor said a lack of assistance for male trafficking survivors made them highly vulnerable to fall prey to traffickers again. The dearth of funds for support prompted Project Issara to seek direct online donations from the public through a crowdfunding website. THE POWER OF COUNSELING One young man, who asked not to be named, was trafficked to Thailand from Cambodia by a relative at the age of eight, and says without counseling and specialized support, he would not have been able to survive. For years, he was forced to beg on the streets, beaten and starved. He was 12 when he was referred to Hagar, received counseling and art therapy, and was sent to a school for trauma survivors. Now 25, he is studying psychology in Phnom Penh and wants to open a charity for trafficked children. "I was in a bad way when I first came here, always angry and breaking things," he said at Hagar's Phnom Penh office. "The counseling and the chance to reflect in a safe environment really helped me to deal with what I had lived through. It's really important to have that kind of help." (Reporting By Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Alex Whiting and Alisa Tang; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit