Rescue Mission for Stranded ‘Slave’ Fishermen Begins on Remote Indonesian Islands

Posted: 
04/10/15

Indonesia - An IOM team has arrived in the remote Aru Islands, off the coast of West Papua, Indonesia, as part of an intergovernmental rescue mission to get hundreds of trafficked fishermen back home to Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.

So far, up to 1,000 foreign men, many victims of trafficking, have been located, and IOM has verified the nationalities of over half of them. Many tell horrific stories of their treatment at sea, where they were made to work up to 22 hours a day for little or no pay.

A year-long Associated Press investigation has created a groundswell of support for these forgotten men, many of whom were put ashore and abandoned months ago as Indonesia ramped up its efforts to stamp out  illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (so-called IUU fishing) which costs the country up to USD 25 billion per year.

“With each passing day we are hearing more and more individual stories of the horror that is modern slavery in the oceans off Indonesia,” said IOM Indonesia Chief of Mission Mark Getchell. “The ramifications of this rescue mission, driven by the Indonesian and other involved governments, will be huge, and IOM is privileged to be able to play a significant part. Our first task is to find these men, establish who they are, and then get them home. Long-term we will continue to advocate for changes in every industry that uses slaves, and try to ensure that people are safe from human.” 

Steve Hamilton, IOM’s Deputy Chief of Mission for Indonesia, arrived in Tual city this week, with a team of IOM staff from the three affected countries. They have already screened over 500 men, as well as providing psychological support and translation services.

Yesterday IOM staff, Indonesian police and Myanmar embassy officials took a boat to nearby Benjina, where they found and screened a further 210 men, 174 of whom are from Myanmar and 36 from Cambodia. Added to the figures from Tual, the official total of identified fishermen now stands at 557 – 455 from Myanmar, 94 from Cambodia, and 8 from Laos.

“There are undoubtedly many more that we haven’t yet found,” said Hamilton, speaking from Tual yesterday. “This is one company, in one port, on one island, in one province. But we will stay here for as long as it takes, and work with the Indonesian government who are definitely doing the right thing here - trying to clean up a very dirty industry.”

Working alongside the embassy staff, IOM hopes to be able to start repatriating the fishermen in about a month, when passports have been issued and flights can be booked. IOM is currently trying to raise funds to cover all or part of the costs.

“Many of these men have had no contact with their families for a very long time, maybe for years,” said Hamilton. “They will have been given up for dead, so you can imagine that there will be some pretty emotional reunions.”

While pleased to be starting the repatriation process, many of them men are concerned about their loss of earnings. IOM has supplied consular staff the names of lawyers who are prepared to work pro bono to help with securing years of back pay and possible compensation for the men’s ordeal. IOM is also coordinating medical assistance with the health authorities in Tual. 

There is some discrepancy in numbers and nationalities which needs to be resolved, according to Hamilton.  “This needs to be investigated, not only on Benjina, but on a much wider scale.  These investigations should include the embassies of traditional victims of abuse by fishing companies - Myanmar and Cambodia.”

There is even confusion about the identities of bodies in a graveyard for foreign fisherman in Benjina. There may be as many as 100 fisherman buried there, dating back 25 years. Some of these are incorrectly identified as being Thai nationals. “If we could find out who they really are, at least the families could have closure,” said Hamilton.

For further information, please contact Steve Hamilton at IOM Indonesia, Tel: +62 21 5795 1275, Email: shamilton@iom.int or Joe Lowry at IOM’s Regional Asia-Pacific Office in Bangkok, Tel.: +66 81 870 8081, Email: jlowry@iom.int

A first group of slave fishermen prepare to leave Benjina island in Indonesia last week.
IOM staff, Indonesian police and Myanmar embassy officials found and screened 210 men in Benjina island in Indonesia. The official total of identified fishermen now stands at 557 – 455 from Myanmar, 94 from Cambodia, and 8 from Laos. IOM is part of an intergovernmental rescue mission to get hundreds of trafficked fishermen back home to Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.