Asia-Pacific

Kidnapped, betrayed and sold, twice: One man's story of modern slavery

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A former Cambodian slave has visited Australia to share his life story and bring attention to the enduring scourge of human trafficking and modern slavery around the world.

Vannak Anan Prum traces his fingers along the dark tattoos self-etched into his skin, markings of his life as a fisherman on the high seas.

The designs of a centipede, tiger and scorpion are worn but still testaments to his artistic skill.

Thirteen years ago, too poor to pay his pregnant wife's hospital bill, he began looking for work on the Cambodian border with Thailand. It was there he was kidnapped, detained, and sold into slavery on a fishing boat. 

Vannak Anan Prum
Former slave Vannak Anan Prum.
Supplied

He vividly recalls the hardships of those three years, working 20-hour days and deprived of food, rest, and those he loved. 

“I always have one straight mindset that I do my work and hopefully will be reunited with my family one day,” the 40-year-old told SBS News. 

It was only Vannak’s then unrecognised talent as an artist that helped keep him safe from the violence endured by other slaves during his time held captive. He calls himself one of the “lucky” ones.

Tattooing made him popular among crew members and he was spared from the harshest mistreatment. But he'll never forget the horrors he saw inflicted on others. 

The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea
The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea

“Workers bashed and beaten up,” he said.

“They end up killing each other for whatever the reason.”

On one occasion, he says he saw a man decapitated, his body thrown into the sea.

On one occasion, he saw a man decapitated, his body thrown into the sea.

“Cutting each other’s heads off and throwing it overboard,” he said.

Global problem

Around the world, more than 40 million people a year are enslaved on any one given day in a year, according to the Global Slavery Index.

More than half are in forced labour, and modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by Asia and the Pacific. Women are vastly over-represented, making up 71 per cent of slavery victims. 

Vannak Anan Prum
Vannak is sharing his story to raise awareness of modern slavery.
Supplied

Vannak has visited Australia to bring attention to his experience of human trafficking, which saw him become a child soldier, monk and slave.

He was invited to speak at a conference in Sydney last week organised by the Anti-Slavery Taskforce of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, and his story is told in his graphic novel The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea, for which he provided the illustrations.

The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea
The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea

He has said he didn't think his life story would be believed, had he not drawn it. 

“I illustrate the book so people can see vividly what was happening,” he said.

“I just want people to know what happened to other workers.”

Twice a slave

One day, as Vannak's fishing vessel neared the Malaysian coastline, he and another stowaway made their escape.

When the boat stopped, the pair leapt into the sea, swimming to shore before running into the jungle.

“At the time of jumping into the water I miss my family so bad,” he said.

“I just want to be free and return home … and tell people in the world about the story that I lived through.”

At the time of jumping into the water I miss my family so bad ... I just want to be free. 

But Vannak’s hopes of finding freedom from the slave trade were soon destroyed.

Vannak Anan Prum shows off a tiger tattoo from his time enslaved on a Thai fishing vessel.
Vannak Anan Prum shows off a tiger tattoo from his time enslaved on a Thai fishing vessel.
SBS News

After seeking help from police officers in Malaysia, he was betrayed – again sold - this time to a palm oil plantation owner.

It would be another year of hard labour before Vannak finally returned to his family in 2010, with the help of a Cambodian human rights organisation.

“I can’t express the feeling… I was so happy to be back,” he said.

The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea
The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea

Once home, Vannak began working on his memoir. 

“I just want to reinforce how life was for those people and myself on this fishing boat,” he said. 

“How hard we were working as slaves, I just want to show the world about people trafficking.”

Australia introduced its own Modern Slavery Act on 1 January this year.

The law requires businesses with consolidated revenue of $100 million per year to report on their actions to mitigate the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains.

Vannak Anan Prum
Vannak being honoured with an award, presented by Hillary Clinton.
Flickr

But according to research from the University of South Australia, many businesses are “ill-prepared” for mandatory slavery reporting.

Its report found two-thirds of ASX 100 companies were unable to produce reliable statements about their potential inherent exploitative labour practices.

Vannak believes international governments and private enterprise must join in taking responsibility to confront the human trafficking trade. 

“My wish is to have all ... the countries [and] the organisations in the world stop this … immediately,” he said.

“It has been too long already.”

The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea: A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery, is published by Seven Stories Press, available in Australia through Penguin Random House.

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