The same trawlers that had enslaved countless migrant fishermen for years carried more than 300 of them to freedom on Saturday, following a dramatic rescue from a remote Indonesian island that many men believed would likely be their final resting place.
After 17 hours overnight at sea, the men, mostly from Myanmar, took their first steps of freedom. They filed off the boats and walked to the site of their new temporary home where they were finally safe.
“I’m so happy, I wanted to go home for so long,” Aung Aung, 26, told the Associated Press as he lifted his hair on the left side of his head to show a fat, jagged scar stretching from his lip to the back of his neck — the result of a machete attack by his captain’s son. “I missed home and especially after I was cut … I was afraid I would die there.”
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 to go to Thailand, where they were put on boats and brought to Indonesia. From there, they were forced to catch seafood that was shipped back to Thailand and exported to consumers around the world, including the United States.
In response to the AP’s findings, an Indonesian delegation visited the island village of Benjina on Friday and offered immediate evacuation after finding brutal conditions, down to an “enforcer” paid to beat men up.
The officials from the Fisheries Ministry offered the men a chance to leave, fearing they would not be safe if they stayed on the island after speaking out about the horrendous labor abuses they endured.
Officials from Myanmar are set to visit the islands next week and will assist with bringing the men home and locating others who are still trapped.
Friday’s unexpected 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 migrants locked in a cage and a slave graveyard. The men 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.
Thailand, the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, has been under further pressure to clean up its industry since the AP tracked a boat of slave-caught seafood by satellite from Benjina to a port outside of Bangkok. Records then linked it to the supply chains of some of America’s largest supermarkets and retailers and among the most popular brands of pet foods.
The U.S. State Department said Friday that it is pressing Myanmar to quickly repatriate the men. U.S. companies also called for action and commended Indonesian officials.