Marked Men

The plight of slave fishermen, trafficked to sea in the vast Asian oceans, has been well documented. Less well known is what happens after their rescue; how they are helped back on their feet after their trauma. The tattoos they get on board the slave ships are emblematic of their lives - the mythical protection of dragons and birds while at sea contrasts with the fear and ridicule their tattoos engender back in their rural homes.

Words, Visuals, Design: Joe Lowry
Support: Sam Ol Nuth and Brett Dickson

13 October 2016

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA: One hour away from the village of Mkak, tourists sip iced lattes by day and plan their visits to the ancient temples at nearby Angkor Wat, the cradle of Khmer civilization. By night the bars boom, loved-up backpackers party till dawn, and the tuk-tuk drivers and stall owners hussle for a buck or two.

Nothing much happens in Mkak ("plum" in Khmer). It's a sweaty ramshackle village of hand-to-mouth rice farmers in Chi Kraeng commune. The tarmac road gives up long before it reaches Mkak. The only buzz comes from flies, mosquitoes, and the occasional motorbike.

The majesty of Angkor Wat, the glitz of Siem Reap... it's another world. In Mkak, as in thousands of other off-the-grid Cambodian villages, days are either rainy (good for the rice), or hot. There's no bank, no hospital, no mall. No work, except backbreaking rice planting. You plant it. You transplant it. You harvest it. Some you eat, some you sell. And here, unlike in other parts of southeast Asia, there's only one harvest a year. That's a long time to be idle. When you are young and strong you should be making money - proper money - not a dollar a day.

You're a young man. Fit. Strong. There are voices in your ear. Telling you there isn't enough food for the children, that you are a lazy bum, that you don't provide. Your mother needs an operation. You father can no longer see. And in six months, there will be another baby.

Say yes. sign up. Get on the back of the pickup truck before you have time to think it through. Two hundred dollars a month for four months. You'll be back before the baby is born. Smiling now, too excited to be afraid. Hurried hugs and then you head across the border and the nightmare begins.

Seven years a slave. You return to your home place, to those fields you skipped across as a child, and toiled in as a teenager. There's no happy homecoming for you. Your parents are dead. Your wife is with another man, who your sons call Dad. You're a walking ghost. Your home-made tattoos scare and horrify.

Now you chase the dragon for real.

It shouldn't end like this. There is money to be made working on the fishing boats, honest money for hard work. And sometimes it works out. Just like trafficking for sex work, there will always be success stories, though they may be few and far between, and certainly exaggerated. But as long as those success stories are the only ones that potential trafficking victims hear, then the job of the traffickers is made easier.

"When my mother saw me (coming home after six years) her heart stopped beating. She died."

"Why did you leave?" I ask one man. He's tall, athletic, with a gentle voice and a kind, innocent smile.

"Because I am poor".

There's no follow-up question. What can I say to that? I realise there is no way I can ever comprehend the abyss he stared into, seven years ago.

"I cannot believe that the cousin of my friend did this to me, and even to his own cousin", he tells me.

"I love my tattoos but they call me ugly... cruel...a gangster"

Despite what I have heard and read about the beatings and the cruelty on board the trawlers, all this small group of men reveal is tougue-lashings, verbal abuse, and an ever-present threat of violence. "I never saw a gun," one man says, "but I'm sure the captain had one". The saddest part is that they believe this is how it has to be, that exploitation is their lot.

There's even a sort of Stockholm Syndrome evident: "The captain had a dragon tattoo like this," one man tells me. "I liked it, so I copied his design."

"I sent money back for my sick parents but they died anyway"

There is much that can be done, both to help victims of trafficking and prevent it from occuring. The International Organization for Migration is working with local communities across Cambodia to train key influencers among local authorizes, temples, schools and employers to warn of the dangers of trafficking, to offer alternatives to those at risk,and to rehabilitate those damaged by trafficking and give them choices.

IOM runs regular awareness sessions for community leaders to help them understand and respond to the dangers posed by people smuggling and human trafficking. Sam Ol Nuth, from IOM Cambodia, explains in the clip below:

The idea is to provide practical, non-clinical guidance to help community leaders understand human trafficking, recognize some of the health problems that are a consequence of trafficking and learn skills in providing basic psychological first aid to survivors, such as support to men to debrief on their experiences in a safe environment such as a Buddhist temple or village chief’s house.

One of the Organization's activities comprises awarding small grants to help former fishermen start businesses. In Mkak IOM has funded livestock, small stores, and even a compressor to pump up car and bicycle tyres. The mother of one of the trafficked fishermen confirmed that thanks to a grant her son received to re-equip and stock their family shop, income has increased from $2 to $7 per day. That may seem like a pittance to you and I, but it takes away the pressure for young men to move abroad, and allows them to stay and help on family farms.

"One area we'd really like to move into is tourism" says Brett Dickson, IOM's project manager. "We know it's just a matter of making contacts and perhaps arranging transport to and from Siem Reap; there are certainly jobs there. However, one thing going against these guys is their tattoos... people think they are mafia tough guys, and are disinclined to employ them".

More from IOM's Brett Dickson in the video below:

Tattooing is an ancient and serious part of Khmer culture. Magical tatoos, known as sok ya are beleived to protect the wearer from everything from bad luck to bullets. More on magical tattoos can be found in this feature from the South China Morning Post

Even with the support of local authorities, the temple, IOM and other organizations, the war on people smuggling is, tragically, being lost. Cambodia's wealth, from tourism, textiles and timber, is poorly distributed. The economy is growing at a rate which in previous years would have been called Asian Tiger levels, yet widespread corruption means the vast majority of Cambodia's population is only scraping by.

Below, the Deputy District Governor of Chi Kraeng commune explains how the local authorities try to keep track of those who have returned from exploitation at sea. Their data shows that the former slaves are either migrating to other provinces, or back to sea, back to the trawlers where their tattoos, at least, will be accepted.


Venerable Tep, Khoeurn, an important regional religious leader, has been personally touched by the tragedy of slave labour. Watch the video below

"My nephew has just died in Thailand. He worked on a fishing boat. Right now, funeral music is being played and heard over a loudspeaker at his home, my home village. Yesterday afternoon I went briefly to his funeral and then I came to participate in this [IOM Training] because I wanted to know all the issues and I wanted to bring this information to the people."