Fishermen Rush to Be Rescued Amid Indonesian Slavery Probe

By Robin McDowell & Margie Mason 3 April 2015

BENJINA, Indonesia — Hundreds of foreign fishermen on Friday rushed at the chance to be rescued from an isolated island where an Associated Press report revealed slavery runs rampant in the industry. Indonesian officials investigating abuses offered to take them out of concern for the men’s safety.

The men, from countries including Burma and Cambodia, began getting the news 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 meager 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 director general of Indonesia’s Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillance initially told about 20 men from Burma that he would move them from Benjina village to neighboring Tual island for their safety following interviews with officials on Friday. However, as news spread that men were getting to leave the island, dozens of others started filing in from all over and sitting on the floor.

When the official, Asep Burhundun, was asked if others hiding in the jungle could come as well, he said, “They can all come. We don’t want to leave a single person behind.”

Fishermen who are Thai nationals will remain on the island. Most of the boat captains are from Thailand.

The Indonesian delegation began interviewing men on boats and assessing the situation on the island this week, and have heard of the same abuses fishermen told The Associated Press in a story published last week. They described being abused at sea, including being 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 and then were taken to Indonesia where they were made to work long hours with little or no pay.

The delegation said security in Benjina is limited, with only two people from the Indonesian navy stationed there. Out of security concerns they decided to move the fishermen to Tual — a 12-hour boat ride away — where they will stay at a Ministry of Fisheries compound where their identities can be verified.

“I’m really happy, but I’m confused,” said Nay Hle Win, 32. “I don’t know what my future is in Myanmar.”

Win Win Ko, who ended up in Indonesia four years ago after leaving Burma, opened his mouth to smile and revealed four missing teeth. The 42-year-old said they were kicked out by a boat captain’s military boots because he was not moving fish fast enough from the deck to the freezer hold.

“I will go see my parents,” he said. “They haven’t heard from me, and I haven’t heard from them since I left.”