Trafficking Survivors Struggle to Rebuild Their Lives Back Home

By Tin Htet Paing 21 December 2015

RANGOON — Several months after arriving back home, Hlaing Min is still struggling to adjust.

“I feel like I double my mother’s worries because I’m yet to find any job for my living,” said the 33-year-old who was one of over 500 trafficked Burmese fishermen rescued from Indonesia earlier this year.

Two days ahead of International Migrants Day on December 18, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Burma’s Department of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement co-organized a discussion in Rangoon on devising ways to assist the rehabilitation of trafficking survivors.

For Hlaing Min, who spoke to The Irrawaddy on the sidelines of the discussion on Wednesday, where about 40 survivors shared their horrifying, years-long experience of slavery aboard fishing boats in Indonesian waters, it all started in 2008.

A neighbor came by Hlaing Min’s house in Karen State’s Myawaddy claiming that he could earn more money in Thailand. With the hope of a brighter future, Hlaing Min agreed to go with a broker to Burma’s eastern neighbor.

After two years working as a shrimp peeler in a seafood factory, he fell victim to a Thai broker who promised to bring him to Malaysia. Instead, he was trafficked onto an Indonesian fishing boat where he remained for some 29 months, ensnared in a situation of debt bondage.

He tried to escape on three occasions before his eventual rescue. Two friends who attempted to flee with him were not so fortunate.

“One [drowned]. The other one died due to severe health problems after we escaped to an island,” Hlaing Min recalled.

“I felt sorry for my two friends when I arrived back to Burma. They risked everything just to escape but they didn’t make it.”

According to Hlaing Min, many Burmese fishermen died at sea, due to health issues or abuse at the hands of employers. Others, like his two friends, died while attempting to escape the appalling conditions.

“Their bones could be made into an island,” he said. “I would name it ‘The Island of Burmese Bones.’”

Back living in Burma since June this year, Hlaing Min has found new hurdles in the struggle to rebuild his life.

“I have no capital to start my own business, even for a small shop that sells little things. No one wants to help me. Sometimes I feel so depressed that I become regretful about coming back,” he said.

“Things have changed a lot. I am like a stranger to the community.”

According to Yu Yu Swe, a Director in the Department of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, trafficking survivors at Wednesday’s discussion were able to share the many challenges they have faced since returning home.

“We want to know what kind of assistance they need. Do they need counseling, psychosocial support or sustainable vocational skills? The most important thing for them is not to be re-trafficked,” Yu Yu Swe said.

State and divisional governments and local enterprises should help create job opportunities for survivors, Yu Yu Swe said, adding that similar workshops were scheduled for Mon State and Tenasserim and Irrawaddy Divisions in the coming months.

National project officer in the IOM’s Rangoon office, Yin Yin Han, said that while NGOs and organizations such as the IOM could support survivors monetarily, such support should be sustainable and go towards building their individual futures.

“We need to know what their strong skills are and what kind of businesses they want to [be involved in] so that we know how to help them,” she said. “It’s not an easy job or a short-term project. We will do [ongoing] evaluations to see how it goes.”

Unable to find a job in Myawaddy, where he lived before setting out for Thailand years ago, Hlaing Min has even found himself wondering whether he should try his luck in Indonesia again, before promptly dismissing the notion.

“I won’t ever be someone’s worker again. That’s enough for me, following someone’s orders. Never again!” he said.

Hundreds of trafficked Burmese fishermen were rescued in 2015 from brutal conditions at sea as a result of an Associated Press investigation into slavery in the industry.