Island Fishing Slaves Freed Indonesia Rescues Them after Years of Forced Labor and Abuse in Seafood Supply Chain Freed: Media Investigation Shed Light on Remote Island Slaves Freed: Media Report Shed Light on Remote Island

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 4, 2015 | Go to article overview

Island Fishing Slaves Freed Indonesia Rescues Them after Years of Forced Labor and Abuse in Seafood Supply Chain Freed: Media Investigation Shed Light on Remote Island Slaves Freed: Media Report Shed Light on Remote Island


Byline: Robin Mcdowell and Margie Mason Associated Press By Robin Mcdowell and Margie Mason Associated Press

BENJINA, Indonesia -- At first the men filtered in by twos and threes, hearing whispers of a possible rescue.

Then, as the news rippled around the island, hundreds of weathered former and current slaves with long, greasy hair and tattoos streamed from their trawlers, down the hills, even out of the jungle, running toward what they had only dreamed of for years: Freedom.

"I will go see my parents. They haven't heard from me, and I haven't heard from them since I left," said Win Win Ko, 42, beaming, his smile showing missing teeth. The captain on his fishing boat had kicked out four teeth with his military boots, he said, because Win was not moving fish fast enough from the deck to the hold below.

The Burmese men were among hundreds of migrant workers revealed in an Associated Press investigation to have been lured or tricked into leaving their countries and

forced into catching fish for consumers around the world, including the United States. In response to the AP's findings, Indonesian government officials visited the island village of Benjina on Friday and found brutal conditions, down to an "enforcer" paid to beat men up. They offered immediate evacuation.

The officials first gave the invitation for protection just to a small group of men who talked openly about their abuse. But then Asep Burhanuddin, director general of Indonesia's Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillance, said everybody was welcome, including those hiding in the forest because they were too scared to go out.

"They can all come," he said. "We don't want to leave a single person behind."

About 320 men took up the offer. Even as a downpour started, some dashed through the rain. They sprinted back to their boats, jumped over the rails and threw themselves through windows. They stuffed their meager belongings into plastic bags, small suitcases and day packs, and rushed back to the dock, not wanting to be left behind.

A small boat going from trawler to trawler to pick up men was soon loaded down.

Throughout the day and until darkness fell, they kept coming, more and more men, hugging, laughing, spilling onto the seven trawlers that were their ride out. Even just before the trawlers pushed off Benjina on the 24-hour trip to neighboring Tual island, fishermen were still running to the shore and clambering onto the vessels. Some were so sick and emaciated, they stumbled or had to be carried up the gang plank.

While excitement and relief flooded through many of the fishermen on the dock, others looked scared and unsure of what to expect next. Many complained they had no money to start over.

"I'm really happy, but I'm confused," said Nay Hla Win, 32. "I don't know what my future is in Myanmar."

Indonesian officials said security in Benjina is limited, with only two Navy officials stationed there to protect them. The men will be housed at a government compound while immigration is sorted out. Officials from Myanmar are set to visit the islands next week and will assist with bringing the men home and locating others.

The dramatic rescue came after a round of interviews Indonesian officials held with the fishermen, where they confirmed the abuse reported in the AP story, which included video of eight men locked in a cage and a slave graveyard. The men, mostly from Myanmar, talked of how they were beaten and shocked with Taser-like devices at sea, forced to work almost nonstop without clean water or proper food, paid little or nothing and prevented from going home.

There was essentially no way out: The island is so remote, there was no phone service until a cell tower was installed last month, and it is a difficult place to reach in the best of circumstances.

The abuse went even further at the hands of the man known as "the enforcer. …

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