More than 300 en­slaved fish­er­men freed

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY ROBIN MCDOW­ELL AND MARGIE MA­SON

The same trawlers that had en­slaved count­less mi­grant fish­er­men for years car­ried more than 300 of them to free­dom Satur­day, fol­low­ing a dra­matic res­cue from a re­mote In­done­sian is­land that many men be­lieved would likely be their fi­nal rest­ing place.

Af­ter 17 hours overnight at sea, the men, mostly from Myan­mar, took their first steps of free­dom. They filed off the boats and walked to the site of their new tem­po­rary home where they were fi­nally safe.

They moved in an or­derly, sin­gle- file line with colored rib­bons tied around their wrists to iden­tify which of the six ves­sels had brought them. They were tired from the long, cramped jour­ney, but smiled and laughed while talk­ing about the new lives they were about to start. At one point, a group sang and clapped their hands. But mostly, the fear of be­ing beaten or killed by their cap­tors had fi­nally lifted.

“I’m so happy, I wanted to go home for so long,” said Aung Aung, 26, who lifted his hair on the left side of his head to show a fat, jagged scar stretch­ing from his lip to the back of his neck - the re­sult of a ma­chete attack by his cap­tain’s son. “I missed home and es­pe­cially af­ter I was cut ... I was afraid I would die there.”

The Burmese men were among hun­dreds of mi­grant work­ers re­vealed in an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion to have been lured or tricked into leav­ing their coun­tries to go to Thai­land, where they were put on boats and brought to In­done­sia. From there, they were forced to catch seafood that was shipped back to Thai­land and ex­ported to con­sumers around the world, in­clud­ing the United States. In re­sponse to the AP’s find­ings, an In­done­sian del­e­ga­tion vis­ited the is­land vil­lage of Ben­jina on Fri­day and of­fered im­me­di­ate evac­u­a­tion af­ter find­ing bru­tal con­di­tions, down to an “en­forcer” paid to beat men up.

The of­fi­cials from the Fish­eries Min­istry of­fered the men a chance to leave, fear­ing they would not be safe if they stayed on the is­land af­ter speak­ing out about the hor­ren­dous la­bor abuses they en­dured.

About 320 men took up the of­fer. Even as a down­pour started, some dashed through the rain. They sprinted back to their boats, jumped over the rails and threw them­selves through win­dows. They stuffed their mea­ger be­long­ings into plas­tic bags, small suit­cases and day packs, and rushed back to the dock, not want­ing to be left be­hind.

Af­ter ar­riv­ing on the is­land of Tual on Satur­day af­ter­noon, the men were given tra­di­tional packets of In­done­sian rice wrapped in pa­per. Those who were sick or in­jured were of­fered med­i­cal care by paramedics in­side am­bu­lances.

The min­istry has ex­pressed some con­cern over how to feed so many peo­ple for an ex­tended pe­riod of time, but a large ope­nair pav­il­ion is be­ing pro­vided for the men to sleep un­der. The ac­com­mo­da­tion is crude with a con­crete floor, but it has a roof to keep them dry and, most im­por­tantly, they are safe.

Of­fi­cials from Myan­mar are set to visit the is­lands next week and will as­sist with bring­ing the men home and lo­cat­ing oth­ers who are still trapped.

Fri­day’s un­ex­pected res­cue came af­ter a round of in­ter­views In­done­sian of­fi­cials held with the fish­er­men, where they con­firmed the abuse re­ported in the AP story, which in­cluded video of eight mi­grants locked in a cage and a slave grave­yard. The men talked of how they were beaten and shocked with Taser- like de­vices at sea, forced to work al­most non­stop with­out clean wa­ter or proper food, paid lit­tle or noth­ing and pre­vented from go­ing home.

There was es­sen­tially no way out. Ben­jina is in the far reaches of In­done­sia and so re­mote, there was no phone ser­vice un­til a cell tower was in­stalled last month, and it is a dif­fi­cult place to reach in the best of cir­cum­stances.

Some of the men said the abuse went even fur­ther at the hands of an In­done­sian man known as “the en­forcer.” He was deeply feared and hated by the work­ers, who said he was hired by their boat cap­tains to pun­ish them for mis­be­hav­ior.

The find­ings doc­u­mented by In­done­sian of­fi­cials and the AP came in stark con­trast to what a Thai del­e­ga­tion re­ported from a visit to Ben­jina ear­lier this week when they searched for traf­ficked Thai na­tion­als. They de­nied mis­treat­ment on the boats and said the crews were all Thai, even though the AP found many mi­grant work­ers from other coun­tries were is­sued fake doc­u­ments with Thai names and ad­dresses.

Thai­land, the world’s third­largest seafood ex­porter, has been un­der fur­ther pres­sure to clean up its in­dus­try since the AP tracked a boat of slave-caught seafood by satel­lite from Ben­jina to a port out­side of Bangkok. Records then linked it to the sup­ply chains of some of Amer­ica’s largest su­per­mar­kets and re­tail­ers and among the most popular brands of pet foods.

The U. S. State Depart­ment said Fri­day that it is press­ing Myan­mar to quickly repa­tri­ate the men. U. S. com­pa­nies also called for ac­tion and com­mended In­done­sian of­fi­cials.

“We don’t con­done hu­man traf­fick­ing in the sup­ply chain, and we ap­plaud the gov­ern­ment’s work to end this abuse. Our hearts go out to th­ese men, and we wish them well on their jour­neys home,” said Mar­ilee McIn­nis, spokes­woman for Wal­Mart, the largest re­tailer in the U. S., which was among those the AP found with sup­ply chains linked to tainted seafood.

The In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Migration has said 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. The coun­try has some of the world’s rich­est fish­ing grounds, and the gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates bil­lions of U.S. dol­lars in seafood are stolen from its wa­ters by for­eign crews ev­ery year.

Three- quar­ters

of

the more than 320 mi­grant work­ers who left the is­land on Fri­day were Burmese. Oth­ers were also from Cam­bo­dia and Laos, and a few Thais were al­lowed to board the boats. How­ever, the In­done­sians said most Thai na­tion­als could stay on Ben­jina more safely, since Thai cap­tains were less likely to abuse them.

Many of the men hugged and jumped in the air when they learned they were fi­nally leav­ing the is­land, but oth­ers worry it will be dif­fi­cult to read­just to the coun­tries they left be­hind.

Phong Myant Aung, 37, worked on trawler for six years and said he was con­stantly phys­i­cally and ver­bally abused and not given medicine when he got sick.

His face lit up when asked how he felt as a free man. But when the ques­tion turned to what he would do when he re­turned to Myan­mar, his eyes slowly filled with tears and he strug­gled to find words.

“I re­ally don’t know. I have no ed­u­ca­tion,” he said, paus­ing to wipe his cheek. “My par­ents are old, I want to be with them.”

AP

1. An In­done­sian of­fi­cial puts wrist bands on re­cently res­cued Burmese fish­er­men for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pur­poses upon their ar­rival in Tual, In­done­sia, on Satur­day, April 4.

AP

2. A res­cued Cam­bo­dian fish­er­man blows cig­a­rette smoke from his nose while wait­ing to be reg­is­tered upon ar­rival in Tual on Satur­day. 3. Burmese fish­er­men ar­rive at the com­pound of Pusaka Ben­jina Re­sources to re­port them­selves for de­par­ture to leave the fish­ing com­pany in Ben­jina, Aru Is­lands, In­done­sia on Fri­day, April 3.

AP

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