Updated at 11:34 a.m. ET on 2015-08-06
Amid fresh allegations that Thai slave ships are operating in eastern Indonesia, authorities Wednesday rescued 45 Myanmar nationals suspected of having worked without pay on fishing boats off Ambon island, police said.
According to Indonesian-language news reports, the 45 crew members and suspected victims of human trafficking – men aged 20 to 50 years old – were taken into custody from a hotel in Jakarta after authorities received a tip about them from the embassy of Myanmar.
They were from Myanmar but carried fake Thai passports and their boss was a Thai citizen, SoloPos quoted Arie Dharmanto, chief of the Human Trafficking Unit of the Criminal Investigation Department, as saying.
It was unclear whether the 45 were Rohingya Muslims, members of a de facto stateless minority in Myanmar.
One of the crewmembers, 23-year-old Sal Weu, told police he had worked on a boat in Ambon for four years without pay, SoloPos reported.
The Ambon case, Arie said, was similar to the alleged enslavement of hundreds of illegal migrants from Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries on the Maluku island of Benjina.
The Benjina case was exposed in March in an investigative report published by the Associated Press. AP’s year-long investigation tied Thailand’s multi-billion dollar seafood industry to the practice of using forced labor on ships trawling Indonesian waters.
“We’ll pursue this case [and] identify the main actors employing them inappropriately,” Arie said of the latest Ambon case, according to TribunNews.com, another news outlet.
More slave ships in Indonesian waters?
Wednesday’s evacuation came days after Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that a fleet of 33 Thai trawlers, believed to be manned by slaves, was being pursued by maritime authorities off the coast of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia’s eastern neighbor.
A 34th ship, named the Blissful Reefer, was intercepted last week off Papua New Guinea. According to a report by AP, six Cambodians and two Myanmar nationals were rescued from the Thai-owned refrigerated cargo ship.
According to the Guardian, a much larger fleet of slave ships is moored off the coast of Ambon. As many as 1,000 slaves might be on board those 240 Thai vessels, the newspaper reported, citing field interviews by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“We’ve interviewed the men from over a third of the 240 vessels in the port and discovered over 350 victims of trafficking, virtually all of whom are from Myanmar,” Paul Dillon, an IOM official based in Jakarta told the Observer, the Guardian’s sister publication.
“If the pattern holds and we’re finally able to get access to the remaining men, we could be looking at up to 1,000.”
In a blog posted on IOM’s website Monday, Dillon wrote that hundreds of more trafficking victims had been identified in Indonesia since the Benjina slave fishing scandal was exposed.
“Since June, a task force involving IOM and the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries has identified over 360 victims of trafficking on foreign vessels in the sprawling port of Ambon,” Dillon wrote.
“All the men are from Myanmar. The crews of an additional roughly 150 ships there have yet to be interviewed by IOM. Typically, each vessel carries between 15-10 crew.”
Benjina fishermen await repatriation
Hundreds of formerly enslaved workers are still awaiting repatriation on Benjina, which is hundreds of miles southeast of Ambon.
Authorities found some 1,185 fishermen working in slave-like conditions there following the AP expose, Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said in April. Most were from Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
“Many have already been sent to their country of origin. About 680 remain, and the IOM is assisting with providing food and basic necessities to them while they await repatriation,” she told BenarNews on August 3.
Meanwhile, a member of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) said it was monitoring and looking into cases of suspected enslavement on Ambon and Benjina islands.
“We are working with the government to bring the suspects to justice,” Komnas HAM commissioner Sandrayati Moniaga told BenarNews.
Yenny Herawati contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Myanmar workers were evacuated from Ambon.