TUAL, Indonesia — When Kyaw Naing arrived at the tiny thatch-and-bamboo shack in Burma, it was empty and the door stood wide open.
He was finally home, after five years of being forced to work as a slave on a fishing boat, but there was no one to greet him. His brother—and only living relative—was gone.
Kyaw Naing, 30, who was kept at one point in a cage on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina, is among eight migrant fishermen rescued for their safety during an Associated Press investigation into slavery in the seafood industry. Those men are now home, and hundreds more are waiting to be repatriated after the Indonesian government evacuated them to another island following the story’s publication.
The number of former slaves found has risen steadily in the past month to nearly 600, reflecting how widespread and deep-rooted the problem of forced labor is on the boats that bring them from Thailand. Before the first men left to go home this week, more than 360 were gathered on the island of Tual, including some who got word of the rescue and traveled hundreds of miles by boat to join the others. Another 230 Burmese and Cambodians have been identified and are waiting to leave Benjina, while hundreds of Thai nationals still have not been processed there.
In addition, the AP recently found more foreign migrants desperate to go home during a visit to the provincial capital of Ambon. The International Organization for Migration suspects thousands of others are stranded on boats or surrounding islands.
A rescue is what Kyaw Naing hoped for when he agreed to talk on camera through the rusty bars of his cage in November. He said he had been locked up by his Thai captain for asking to go home.
“I was really upset because I didn’t know when I was going to return. When I looked at the sea, all I saw was water—ocean all over. I was hopeless,” he said. “I did the video and volunteered it to let the whole world know.”
Most of the men are from Burma, but some are from Cambodia, Laos and poor parts of Thailand. They were sold, tricked or even kidnapped in Thailand and brought to work in Indonesian waters for little or no pay. They were forced to work up to 24 hours a day with inadequate food and unclean water, and many reported being beaten and denied medical care.
The AP linked their catch to the supply chains of some of America’s biggest food sellers, such as Wal-Mart, Sysco and Kroger, and also to popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. The companies have all said they strongly condemn labor abuse and are taking steps to prevent it, such as working with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.
On Monday, 59 former slaves from Cambodia became the first to return home there. Sim Chhorn, 69, traveled to the airport from the central part of the county to meet her son.
“I thought in this life, I would not see him again,” she said with a quivering voice before their reunion.
The hundreds of men still waiting at the port in Tual are now free to relax and laugh as they kick a rattan ball over a net in the traditional Burmese game of “chinlone.” Some watch the sunset at dusk or lounge in hammocks listening to Burmese music. Others sit in the cool grass of an open field getting haircuts.
But significant challenges remain, including the cost of feeding them, providing medical care and getting them home.
Repatriation is expensive due to air travel. Australia has already donated more than US$1.6 million, while the United States paid $35,000 for the Cambodians’ flights and has provided another $225,000 to support case workers, health care, food, water and shelter. Burma is planning chartered flights, the first of which is scheduled for Thursday, and the IOM has been coordinating efforts and providing other necessities.
Much more is needed, especially since many of the fishermen were paid little or nothing and are going home penniless. Some have not been in contact with family for years and aren’t sure if relatives have moved or even if they will find them alive.
“The overall response so far is a good first step in tackling human trafficking in the fishing industry that has been allowed to run rampant for far too long,” said Steve Hamilton, deputy chief of mission at the IOM in Indonesia. “But it is only a first step of many that need to follow.”
In the meantime, authorities in Indonesia and Thailand are working to punish those responsible.
On Tuesday, Indonesian police announced the first arrests in the case. Two Indonesian employees of Pusaka Benjina Resources, one of the largest fishing companies in eastern Indonesia, and five Thai captains were taken into custody on charges of human trafficking. Authorities have vowed more arrests will follow, and the country’s Human Rights Commission is investigating.
Meanwhile, Jakarta police said Wednesday that a Fisheries Ministry official from Benjina who was slated to be a key witness had died of a heart attack. The Fisheries minister has launched an internal investigation, and other witnesses have been placed in protection.
Thailand’s prime minister’s office has also said it is probing the Benjina case.
“I am surprised and saddened,” said Burma police Lt. Col. Khin Maung Hla, who visited the Indonesian islands last month to investigate the problem. “I think the Thai companies should be held responsible because they are the ones bringing these people overseas.”
However, Wiriya Sirichaiekawat, vice chair of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, said that the problems are not representative of the entire Thai fishing industry. He added that he doesn’t believe many of the men from Benjina were unpaid.
“Maybe 1 percent,” he said of the level of labor abuses aboard Thai boats in foreign waters. “Not all of them.”
Kyaw Naing insists he is still owed for years of work on his boat. Now that he’s back home in Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta, he realizes the chances of ever receiving any wages are slim. But for now, he has something better than money.
After waiting for a while at the little hut, his older brother finally returned. Kyaw Naing immediately approached and knelt before him, offering respect according to the country’s Buddhist tradition.
There were no dramatic hugs or tears. But both men smiled as the younger brother told an edited version of his life on the high seas—minus the slavery and despair—and talked about his dream of opening a barber shop in Burma.
“Whether he is rich or poor, I am so happy to see him again,” said Kyaw Oo, who happily opened his family’s 8-foot by 8-foot home to the brother he thought he’d lost. “After all these years, I wondered if he had forgotten me. Or does he still recognize me as a brother? Or is he dead or alive?”