BENJINA, Indonesia – Hundreds of fishermen raced to be rescued Friday from the isolated Indonesian island where an Associated Press investigation found that many were enslaved to catch seafood that could end up in the United States and elsewhere.
Indonesian officials probing labour abuses told the migrant workers they were allowing them to leave for another island by boat out of concern for their safety. More than 300 fishermen emerged from nearby trawlers, villages and even the jungle to make the trip.
“I will go see my parents,” said Win Win Ko, 42, smiling to reveal a mouth full of missing teeth. “They haven’t heard from me, and I haven’t heard from them since I left.”
He left impoverished Myanmar four years ago on the promise of getting a good job in neighbouring Thailand, but like many others stranded in the island village of Benjina, he was instead duped into getting on a fishing boat that took him thousands of miles from home with no return. He said his four teeth were kicked out by a Thai boat captain’s military boots because he was not moving fish fast enough from the deck to the hold below.
The current and former slaves began getting news about the rescue as a downpour started, and some ran through the rain. They sprinted back to their boats, jumping over the rails and throwing themselves through windows. They stuffed their meagre belongings into plastic bags and rushed back to the dock, not wanting to be left behind.
A small boat went from trawler to trawler picking up men who wanted to go and was soon loaded down with about 30 men.
The Indonesian delegation began interviewing men on boats and assessing the situation on the island this week. They have heard of the same abuses fishermen told the AP in a story published last week, which documented a company graveyard in Benjina and eight fishermen locked in a company cage.
The fishermen described being beaten, kicked and whipped with stingray tails and given Taser-like electric shocks. Some said they fell ill and were not given medicine; others said had been promised jobs in Thailand but were instead issued fake seafarer documents and taken to Indonesia, where they were made to work 20- to 22-hour days with no time off for little or zero pay. Their catch is then shipped back to Thailand, where it enters global markets, the AP story documented.
Initially, Indonesian officials told about 20 men from Myanmar, also known as Burma, that they could be moved from Benjina to neighbouring Tual island for their safety following interviews with officials on Friday. However, as news spread that some were getting to leave the island, dozens of others started filing in from all over and sitting on the floor. An official was later asked if those hiding in the forest could come as well.
“They can all come,” said Asep Burhanuddin, director general of Indonesia’s Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillance. “We don’t want to leave a single person behind.”
The delegation said security in Benjina is limited, with only two Indonesian navy officials stationed there. The men crowded onto seven trawlers and will be moved to Tual over 24 hours. They will stay at a Fisheries Ministry compound until their identities can be verified.
“I expected to evacuate all of them, but I did not expect it this soon,” said Ida Kusuma, one of the leaders of the Fisheries Ministry delegation. “But I think it’s good.”
Kusuma said the next step is to co-ordinate with immigration and their countries of origin.
The International Organization for Migration said last week there could be as many as 4,000 foreign men, many trafficked or enslaved, who are stranded on islands surrounding Benjina following a fishing moratorium called by the Indonesian Fisheries Ministry to crack down on poaching. Indonesia has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, and the government estimates billions of dollars in seafood are stolen from its waters by foreign crews every year.
Many of those leaving Benjina on Friday were Burmese, but about 50 refused to go, saying they had not received their salaries and did not want leave without money. Another 50 from Cambodia came forward in a group ready to leave.
Officials from Myanmar will visit the islands next week to look for more men and start the process of sending them home.
Thai fishermen will not be transported because they are not seen as a security risk since most of the boat captains in Benjina are from Thailand, Burhanuddin said.
Officials from Thailand visited the island earlier this week, but their trip was focused on finding Thai nationals who had been trafficked. They denied mistreatment on the boats and said the crews were all Thai, which directly contradicted what the Indonesians and the AP found.
“We examined the boats and the crews, and the result is most of the crews are happy and a few of them are sick and willing to go home,” said Thai police Lt. Gen. Saritchai Anekwiang, who was leading the delegation. “Generally, the boat conditions are good.”
The yearlong AP investigation used satellites to track seafood caught by the slaves from a large refrigerated cargo ship in Benjina to Thailand. The investigation linked the seafood to supply chains of some of America’s largest supermarkets and retailers.
The report prompted the U.S. government and major seafood industry leaders to urge Thailand to end slavery at sea and to punish those responsible. Thailand’s biggest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products, announced it was cutting ties with a supplier after determining it might be involved with forced labour and other abuses.
Police are investigating in Benjina and will decide whether to prosecute those involved, said Kedo Arya, head of Maluku province prosecutor’s office.
While excitement and relief flooded through many of the fishermen assembled on the dock, some carrying suitcases or small rucksacks, others looked scared and unsure of what to expect next.
“I’m really happy, but I’m confused,” said Nay Hla Win, 32. “I don’t know what my future is in Myanmar.”
Mason reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Associated Press writer Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report from Jakarta.
Follow Mason and McDowell at twitter.com/MargieMasonAP and twitter.com/robinmcdowell.