RANGOON — Before last night, Kwat Kwat had not seen her son for over a year.
Waiting at the arrivals terminal of Rangoon International Airport on Thursday, the 47-year-old Irrawaddy Division villager awaited his arrival on a plane carrying 124 other trafficking victims—all of whom had been stranded in Indonesia and forced to work on Thai fishing boats, in some cases for up to a decade.
Last year, a broker offered her son a salary of US$250 per month, without an upfront payment on travel costs, to work on boats off the coast of Thailand. With no prospects of employment in his home village, he jumped at the opportunity.
Kwat Kwat lost contact with her son a few months he left, when he called to inform her he and his colleagues had been detained by authorities in Indonesia, and the broker who arranged her son’s passage stopped answering her phone calls.
“He went on a fishing boat to Thailand,” she told The Irrawaddy. “A woman from Myaungmya took him away. He never sent any money back. He said he could travel there legally for free and pay back the cost of his travel from working. After three months, he told me that he was taken there illegally.”
140 men have now returned out of a group of 535 Burmese nationals trafficked to Indonesia by Thai fishing boats. Fifteen men that arrived in Rangoon on Saturday have since returned to their homes. Those that arrived on Thursday evening will travel back to their homes over the weekend under the escort of divisional government representatives.
In March, an explosive Associated Press investigation revealed that migrant workers from across Southeast Asia had been provided with false documentation and forced to work in the fishing industry based around the Maluku Islands in eastern Indonesia. Numerous workers reported instances of serious assaults and deaths at the hands of their boat captains, and laborers considered to be flight risks were locked in squalid cages.
Those who were able to contact home did their best to warn others. Khin Than, a villager from Ngapudaw Township, Irrawaddy Division, said her 23-year-old son Myat Thu Win went to work on the fishing boats after a relative told him he would be able to work legally on the vessel, with a generous salary and no advance brokerage fees. It wasn’t long before Myat Thu Win was mugged by the reality of his “employment”.
“Whenever my son called, he asked me to tell villagers not to come,” she said.
Before they could greet their families, the men who arrived at Rangoon Airport on Thursday night were spirited away by authorities to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement offices in Mayangone Township. The Irrawaddy was able to briefly speak to some of the men during their rushed exit. All described conditions on the Indonesian islands as harsh and unforgiving, with frequent bullying and abuse from their employers, and little or no payment for their work.
“There were so many of us who have run away from fishing boats, said 33-year-old Yan Naing Win Htun, a native of Pegu Division who was trapped on Indonesia’s Benjina Island for three years. “I’m extremely happy. We all wanted to come back but we couldn’t.”
Myo Zar Lwin, from Rangoon, was trafficked in Sept. 2013 through southern Thailand’s Rangong Province.
“I only found out I was being sold when we arrived there,” he told The Irrawaddy.
He described his sense of working on the seas, which for many laborers included 20- to 22-hour shifts through the week, as being an experience where he was unable to determine whether he was dead or alive.
The rest of the 535 men, who were screened by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and officials from Indonesia and Burma earlier this month to determine their Burmese citizenship, will return via Rangoon in the next few days.
Flights for the men have been underwritten by the Brighter Future Foundation, the charitable arm of the local conglomerate Kanbawza (KBZ) Group.
The men, who arrived last night in clothes sporting KBZ livery, were flown by Myanmar Airways International, an airline wholly owned by KBZ Group. Three more flights have been scheduled, at a reported cost to the foundation of $400,000.
“We brought them back because we were sympathetic,” said Nyo Myint, the KBZ Group senior managing director. “It’s not due to an order by the government. Many workers still remain there for us to bring.”
In April the IOM estimated that there were up to 4,000 men trafficked from across Southeast Asia and forced to work in the fishing industry in the Maluku islands.
Additional reporting from Kyaw Hsu Mon in Naypyidaw and May Sitt Paing in Rangoon.