The Indonesian government says it is moving foreign fishermen from an isolated island where slavery in the fishing industry was exposed last week by an Associated Press investigation, out of concern for their safety.
The director general of Indonesia’s Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillance initially told a group of about 20 Burmese men he would move them from Benjina village to neighbouring Tual island for their safety following interviews with officials on Friday.
However, as news spread that men were getting to leave the island, hundreds of others, from countries including Myanmar and Cambodia, started filing in from all over and sitting on the floor.
If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us. There must be a mountain of bones under the sea.
When the official, Asep Burhundun, was asked if others hiding in the jungle could come as well, he said: “They can all come. We don’t want to leave a single person behind.”
Fishermen who are Thai nationals will remain on the island. Most of the boat captains are from Thailand.
The Associated Press news agency’s report profiled several Burmese men who were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to work as slaves.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Benjina, said that “they were looking for jobs in Thailand [from Myanmar], thought they would work in restaurants, but then were shipped to Indonesia and ended up here.”
There were thousands of slaves forced to fish, with the International Organisation for Migration reporting as many as 4,000 people in the areas surrounding Benjina.
Workers described being beaten, forced to work 20- to 22-hour shifts, being given unclean drinking water, and even testimonies about many who died at sea.
“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us. There must be a mountain of bones under the sea,” runaway Hlaing Min said. “The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.”
The AP report identified several famous American chains that carry seafood products from those Thai factories that received their supply from slave labour, including Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, Wal-Mart, and the nation’s largest food distributor, Sysco.
The report also said that the Thai factories ship to Europe and Asia.
Delegations from Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia have all launched investigations into the allegations of slavery.
Illegal fishing is “killing people and nobody knows or cares about this for so long”, said Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who has vowed to take swift action.
But “there is hardly any control over these areas in the far east of Indonesia, which is why this was able to happen,” Vaessen reported.
“I want to go home. We all do,” one Burmese slave called out over the side of his boat, a cry repeated by many men. “Our parents haven’t heard from us for a long time, I’m sure they think we are dead.”