BENJINA, Indonesia – Officials from three countries are travelling to remote islands in eastern Indonesia to investigate how thousands of foreign fishermen were abused and forced into catching seafood that could end up in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
A week after The Associated Press published a story about slavery in the seafood industry — including video of men locked in a cage — delegations from Thailand and Indonesia visited the island village of Benjina. A government team from Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, is also scheduled to tour the area next week to try to determine how many of its citizens are stuck there and what can be done to bring them home.
The visits reflect how the problem stretches across several countries, and how difficult it has been to resolve. The migrant workers lured or even kidnapped into fishing are usually from Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in the world, along with Cambodia, Laos and impoverished areas of Thailand. They are brought from Thailand to fishing boats in Indonesia, where many say they are beaten, made to work long hours with little or no pay, and prevented from leaving. Their catch is then shipped back to Thailand, where it enters global markets, the AP story documented.
On Thursday, the atmosphere was tense as a group of Burmese men in Benjina talked nervously to the AP. One older fisherman with dark, weathered skin recounted how he was recruited from Myanmar and promised a good job in neighbouring Thailand, but was sent to Indonesia instead. He said he had been working for six and a half years on boats in Indonesia, where the captain would swear at him and kick him in the ribs with boots.
“I know talking to you is dangerous, that our lives are threatened, but this is the only way to get out of here,” he said. The AP is withholding the men’s names out of safety concerns. “I just want to go home to see my parents before they die.”
About a dozen fishing boats were docked on shore, while others bobbed far out enough in the water that officials could not see the crews. When the AP tried to interview Burmese workers on one boat, security guards at Pusaka Benjina Resources, the company that runs the fishing operation, barked into their radios and ran to stop the men from talking. Site manager Herman Martino said men were not allowed to speak to the press while on the trawlers.
Martino said there are about 1,000 fishermen in Benjina. At first, he said all were Thai. However, when pressed, he acknowledged that their official documents identified them as Thai, but it’s possible some were from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Martino also denied allegations of slavery and said that although hours are irregular, workers are given time to rest and do not labour up to 22 hours a day, as many fishermen have reported. He tried to explain the cage the AP earlier found inside the company compound with eight men locked inside.
“What is described as a detention house is merely a temporary place, which is endorsed by immigration, to accommodate those committing light crimes such as theft, drunkenness or fighting among themselves on board,” he said. “They were handed over by their Thai captains.”
Immigration officials have denied any knowledge of the cell.
Benjina was one of several island stops this week for the government officials, who talked with migrant workers and visited a graveyard where dozens of fishermen were buried. Thai officials said they had already located and repatriated some Thai workers. However, they denied any mistreatment on the boats and said the crews were all Thai. Many of the men seen by the AP aboard trawlers and on the island were Burmese.
“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.”
While Benjina was the site of some of the worst abuses, up to 4,000 men — many trafficked or enslaved — are now abandoned and stranded across surrounding islands, according to the International Organization for Migration. An Indonesian official from the Fisheries Ministry, Ida Kusuma, said she found the slavery reports very upsetting and promised action.
“We (will) prove that we don’t want to let it happen anymore,” she said, on the neighbouring island of Tual.
At the port in the provincial capital of Ambon more than 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Benjina, runaways from Cambodia and Laos also described years of abuse. The AP visited a Christian cemetery where more than 20 white markers simply read “Thailand” in black print. It is unclear, however, whether the men were actually Thai nationals, since the AP found that many migrant workers from elsewhere are given fake documents with Thai names and addresses.
“If I was American, I know I would not eat fish,” said one Cambodian who was trafficked at age 13 to Thailand and on to Indonesia. He’s now 27 and has spent half of his life away from home. “It’s so bad.”
Just as worker documents are faked, so are fishing licenses, according to the Indonesian government. The fishing grounds in the Arafura Sea near Benjina are so rich that they attract illegal boats from Thailand and other countries, making it difficult to monitor labour practices.
Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s new fisheries minister, has called a moratorium on fishing so that officials can review licenses. She has confiscated and blown up several illegal boats on television to send the message that Indonesian waters can no longer be plundered.
The ministry believes many of the ships fly Indonesian flags when in the country’s waters, and then switch to another country’s flag when leaving. In Tual on Tuesday, Kusuma said she was surprised to find a Chinese flag in the captain’s room on one ship. The boat’s Chinese name could also still be seen written in characters beneath a thin layer of white paint, and the captain was Chinese, she said.
“It’s an Indonesian boat because it is registered in Indonesia and we also give license to them to fish,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to fly both flags, whatever the reason is.”
The AP investigation used satellites to track seafood caught by the slaves from Benjina to Thailand, and documented links to the 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. The State Department is monitoring the situation closely, an official said in an emailed statement.
In the meantime, the graffiti scratched on the walls of the cell — poems, names of loved ones, simple sketches of monks — is a testimony to the despair and longing of the men who have been housed there.
“I hope I will get home in time,” one poem says. “If there is a way in, there is a way out.”
“It’s so painful to be a seaman,” another reads. “I have no attachment anymore.”
Mason reported from Tual, Indonesia. Associated Press writer Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.
Follow Mason and McDowell at twitter.com/MargieMasonAP and twitter.com/robinmcdowell.