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3 countries investigate fishing slavery reported by AP

April 22, 2015 · 

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By ROBIN MCDOWELL and MARGIE MASON

Apr. 2, 2015 6:53 PM ET

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In this Wednesday, April 1, 2015 photo a Thai official takes pictures of the graves of foreign fishermen at a cemetery in Benjina, Aru Islands, Indonesia. Officials from three countries are traveling to a remote island of Indonesia to investigate how thousands of foreign fishermen wound up there as slaves and were forced to catch seafood that could eventually end up being exported to the United States and elsewhere. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

(AP) — Officials from three countries are traveling to remote islands in eastern Indonesia to investigate how thousands of foreign fishermen were abused and forced into catching seafood that could end up in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

A week after The Associated Press published a story about slavery in the seafood industry — including video of men locked in a cage — delegations from Thailand and Indonesia visited the island village of Benjina. A government team from Myanmar is also scheduled to visit the area next week to try to determine how many of its citizens are stuck there and what can be done to bring them home.

The visits reflect how the problem stretches across several countries, and how difficult it has been to resolve. The migrant workers lured or even kidnapped into fishing are usually from Myanmar, also known as Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world, along with Cambodia, Laos and poor areas of Thailand. They are brought through Thailand to fishing boats in Indonesia, where many say they are beaten, made to work long hours with little or no pay, and prevented from leaving. Their catch is then shipped back to Thailand, where it enters global markets, the AP story documented.

On Thursday, the atmosphere was tense as a group of Burmese men on Benjina talked nervously to the AP. One older man with dark, weathered skin recounted how he was recruited from Myanmar and promised a good job in neighboring Thailand, but was sent to Indonesia instead. He said he had been working for six and a half years on boats in Indonesia, where the captain would swear at him and kick him in the ribs with boots.

“I know talking to you is dangerous, that our lives are threatened, but this is the only way to get out of here,” he said. The AP is withholding his name out of safety concerns. “I just want to go home to see my parents before they die.”

About a dozen fishing boats were docked on shore, while others bobbed far out enough in the water that officials could not see the crews. When the AP tried to interview Burmese workers on one boat, security guards at Pusaka Benjina Resources, the company that runs the fishing operation, barked into their radios and ran to stop the men from talking. Site manager Herman Martino said men were not allowed to speak to the press while on the trawlers.

Martino said there are about 1,000 fishermen in Benjina. At first, he said all were Thai. However, when pressed, he acknowledged that their official documents identified them as Thai, but it’s possible some were from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Martino also denied allegations of slavery and said that although hours are irregular, workers are given time to rest and do not labor up to 22 hours a day, as many fishermen have reported. He tried to explain the cage the AP earlier found inside the company compound with eight men locked inside.

“What is described as a detention house is merely a temporary place, which is endorsed by immigration, to accommodate those committing light crimes such as theft, drunkenness or fighting among themselves on board,” he said. “They were handed over by their Thai captains.”

Immigration officials have denied any knowledge of the cell.

Benjina was one of several island stops this week for the government officials, who talked with migrant workers and visited a graveyard where dozens of fishermen were buried. Thai officials said they had already located and repatriated some mistreated Thai workers.

While Benjina was the site of some of the worst abuses, as many as 4,000 men, many trafficked or enslaved, are now abandoned and stranded across the islands, according to the International Organization for Migration. An Indonesian official from the Fisheries Ministry, Ida Kusuma, said she found the slavery reports very upsetting and promised action.

“We (will) prove that we don’t want to let it happen anymore,” she said, on the neighboring island of Tual.

On another island, Ambon, runaways from Cambodia and Laos also described years of abuse. The AP visited a Christian cemetery where more than 20 white markers simply read “Thailand” in black print. It is unclear, however, whether the men were actually Thai nationals, since the AP found that many migrant workers from elsewhere are given fake documents with Thai names and addresses.

Just as worker documents are faked, so are fishing licenses, according to the Indonesian government. The fishing grounds in the Arafura Sea near Benjina are so rich that they attract illegal Thai and other foreign boats, which are harder to regulate for labor practices.

Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s new fisheries minister, has called a moratorium on fishing so that officials can review licenses. She has confiscated and blown up several illegal fishing boats on television to send the message that Indonesian waters can no longer be plundered.

The ministry believes many of the ships fly Indonesian flags when in the country’s waters, and then switch to another country’s flag when leaving. In Tual on Tuesday, Kusuma said she was surprised to find a Chinese flag in the captain’s room on one ship. The boat’s Chinese name could also still be seen written in characters beneath a thin layer of white paint, and the captain was Chinese, Kusuma said.

“It’s an Indonesian boat because it is registered in Indonesia and we also give license to them to fish,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to fly both flags, whatever the reason is.”

The AP investigation used satellites to track seafood caught by the slaves from Benjina to Thailand, and documented links to the supply chains of some of America’s largest supermarkets and retailers. The report prompted the U.S. government and major seafood industry leaders to urge Thailand to end slavery at sea and to punish those responsible. The State Department is monitoring the situation closely, an official said in an emailed statement.

In the meantime, the graffiti scratched on the walls of the cell — poems, names of loved ones, simple sketches of monks — is a testimony to the despair and longing of the men within.

“I hope I will get home in time,” one poem says. “If there is a way in, there is a way out.”

“It’s so painful to be a seaman,” another reads. “I have no attachment anymore.”

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Mason reported from Tual, Indonesia.

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Follow Mason and McDowell at twitter.com/MargieMasonAP and twitter.com/robinmcdowell.

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