JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The number of foreign fishermen stranded on several remote eastern Indonesian islands has spiraled to 4,000, including some revealed in an Associated Press investigation to have been enslaved.
Many are migrant workers abandoned by their boat captains after the government passed a moratorium on foreign fishing five months ago, according to the International Organization for Migration, which released the figure Friday. However, others have been trapped on the islands for years, after being dumped by fishing boats or escaping into the jungle.
"This is the worst moment in our life right now," one former slave told the AP, which is not releasing the names of the men for their safety. "It is even worse than being in hell. We have to work every day to survive. ... There is no hope for us anymore."
The AP reported earlier this week that slaves — some of them beaten and locked in cages — are forced to fish, and their catch ends up in the supply chains of American supermarkets and restaurants. The migration agency said Friday that the report follows several years of close work with Indonesian authorities to rescue hundreds of fisherman identified as victims of trafficking.
Many of the stranded are men from Myanmar who went to neighboring Thailand in search of work. They were taken by boat to Indonesia, which has some of the world's richest fishing grounds. Others left behind on the islands are Cambodian and a few from the poorer parts of Thailand.
Steve Hamilton, IOM's deputy chief of mission in Indonesia, said for every man they've already rescued, many more now need help. With the fishing ban, boats have docked or fled, ditching their crews.
"It is reasonable to expect many are victims of trafficking, if not outright slavery," he said.
"But for the first time in possibly several years, their feet are touching dry land and there is a real possibility for them to go home, once we and the authorities locate and process them," he said.
About a quarter of the men are in Benjina, a town that straddles two islands in the Maluku chain, according to an Indonesian official who recently visited the area. These men, some abandoned five, 10, even 20 years ago, load and unload fish off boats for food and pocket money, or cut and sell logs in the forest of surrounding areas.
When the AP showed up, asking the men to share their stories, only a few emerged at first out of fear. Then, more and more filtered in, until a group of around 30 formed. Most squatted or sat on the ground, others stood around them as they recounted the horrors they had witnessed at sea. Then one after another, they expressed their desperate desire to go home, saying they were sure their families thought they were dead..
"Our body is here but our mind is at home," one dockworker said. "If it was possible to walk back home, we would do it right away."
Another wiped tears as he spoke, his voice quivering.
"Our lives have no more value than a dog," he said, adding no one cared if they lived or died. The AP is not using the men's names for their safety.
The moratorium was declared by Indonesia's new Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti to determine which ships are not properly licensed and crack down on illegal foreign boats. Poaching drains billions of dollars from the country, and Pudjiastuti said Friday that stamping it out is key to addressing labor abuses. She added she was horrified knowing fishermen are being enslaved in her country.
"We are not letting this happen," she said. "In the past, it's been a normal practice. Not now. I'm not allowing it."
The Indonesian government has pledged to take legal measures to address what is happening in Benjina and other islands. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha also acknowledged the AP story and said his government was stepping up efforts to prosecute those responsible.
"If they still continue to exploit their fellow human beings, they should not be given any licenses to operate businesses in Thailand, and they must receive the punishment they deserve," Prayuth said in a written response to questions submitted by the Bangkok Post.
However, earlier this week, Prayuth urged journalists not to report on human trafficking without considering how the news would affect the country's seafood industry and reputation abroad.
The U.S. State Department last year blacklisted Thailand for its handling of labor abuses, putting it on par with countries including North Korea and Iran. The Thai government says it is cleaning up the problem and has laid out a plan, including new laws that mandate wages, sick leave and shifts of no more than 14 hours. On Thursday, Thai lawmakers voted unanimously to create tougher penalties for violating the country's anti-human trafficking law, including the death penalty.
On Friday, 21 Thai fishermen who had been stranded in Indonesia returned home to their families, and the government is working to repatriate more.
Major leaders in the U.S. seafood and retail industries sent a letter to the ambassadors of Thailand and Indonesia this week, demanding to know what will be done to free slaves in the seafood industry. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, also urged Thai authorities to tackle the scourge.
"The Thailand government has made repeated verbal commitments to get tough with traffickers but every time real follow-up has been lacking," Robertson said in an email. "The question now is whether the revelations in AP's article will finally be enough to push Thailand to take long overdue action against fishing vessels that are systematically using slave labor to catch the seafood ending up in America's kitchens."
In the meantime, Ngwe Thein, 42, is one of the thousands of men who are waiting. Thein has been living on an island near Benjina for three years, after being forced to work long hours on a fishing trawler with inadequate food and little or no pay.
He said he left Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, eight years ago when his country was still under military rule. He did not know about the political and economic changes that began sweeping his country in 2011 or that the oppressive and brutal junta was gone. He asked if Nobel prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest.
Hours after the AP talked to him, he got a haircut and changed into a crisp shirt, saying he had hope for the first time that he might get to go home.
"I don't know whether our country is good or bad now," he said. "There is just always a problem for us to survive wherever we are."
McDowell reported from Benjina, Indonesia. Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Esther Htusan in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.
Follow Mason on Twitter at twitter.com/MargieMasonAP and McDowell at twitter.com/robinmcdowell.