Fishing boats dump trafficking victims on remote Indonesian islands

Human Trafficking
by Gaye Clark
Posted 4/01/15, 03:28 pm

The number of foreign fishermen stranded on several remote Indonesian islands has climbed to more than 4,000 in the last few weeks. Boat captains abandoned the men, many victims of human trafficking, after the government issued a moratorium on foreign fishing. Indonesian Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, declared the moratorium in an effort to identify unlicensed ships and prosecute poachers.

Each year, thousands of migrants, desperate for work and lured by the promise of better jobs, pay brokers to smuggle them into Thailand. But instead of leading them to a path of prosperity, brokers sell them into slavery aboard the country’s fishing ships.   

Most of the stranded men are from Myanmar, Cambodia, and poorer parts of Thailand. The Associated Press interviewed more than 40 men stranded on the island of Benjina in Maluku province off the south coast of West Papua. Some of the men lived in cages with concrete floors. Survivors told stories of intolerable living conditions, 20-22 hour days, extreme physical abuse, and murder. 

“Our lives have no more value than a dog,” one survivor said.

The Internal Organization for Migration (IOM) has been working with Indonesian authorities to rescue fishermen identified as victims of trafficking. Prior to the moratorium, many of the men had not been on dry land for years. Brett Dickson of IOM explained the bigger fishing vessels do not dock in any port in any country—they unload their catch to smaller vessels off shore. Trapped miles out at sea, the men work as slaves on a floating prison.

Pudjiastuti said she was horrified knowing fishermen are being enslaved in her country. “We are not letting this happen,” she said. “I’m not allowing it.”

Last week, 21 Thai fishermen stranded in Indonesia returned home to their families, and the government is working to repatriate more.

As part of a yearlong investigation, the Associated Press followed a shipment of seafood harvested by a Thai ship that used slave labor. The ship workers unloaded the cargo at Benjina, and reloaded it onto a Thai ship, the Silver Sea. The seafood ended up in Thailand, alongside shipments caught legally. Reporters concluded it was not possible to guarantee seafood bound for the United States is free from the stain of human trafficking. 

U.S. government and business leaders have renewed calls for the Thai government to prosecute people who force migrant workers to catch seafood that might be shipped to the United States. Thailand's biggest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products, announced it cut ties with an unnamed supplier after determining it might be involved in human trafficking. 

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, urged Thai authorities to “take long overdue action against fishing vessels that are systematically using slave labor to catch the seafood ending up in America's kitchens.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Gaye Clark

Gaye is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course.

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