Rescued from a Sea of Sorrow

"I was told I could make a lot of money working on a ship and that my family was going to be paid an advance of my salary even before I started working.” Muang Muang, Myanmar.

He told me I will be working in Thailand on board a vessel for six months or maybe a year. I thought why not? I am young, strong, willing to work to support my family, want to see the world, broaden my horizons, and become someone with means; someone who made it in my village!” Vuthy, Cambodia

Maung Maung from Myanmar and Vuthy from Cambodia (names changed to protect their identities), though nationals of different countries, share a similar tale. Both were enticed by lucrative job offers from a stranger who one day came to their native villages promising them and other youths riches working on board ships in Thailand; tempting opportunities that could fulfil their dream of helping them and their families climb out of poverty. Thoughts of “Why not? I have nothing to lose except time, which is in abundance” went through their minds, and with little hesitation, both decided to accept the offer on the spot.

With haste, the broker facilitated their journey to their respective national capitals to obtain relevant travel documents for Thailand. Passports in hand, both crossed the border on tourist visas and arrived at a Thai port city miles away from the temples and tourist attractions a holidaymaker would normally visit in this part of the world. On arrival at a large house, Muang Muang and Vuthy were warmly welcomed by the wife of a ship owner who gave them some money to buy clothes and toiletries at a local market before their journey began. The house was also guarded. When word was received that the ship was arriving and both were to leave in two days, guards restricted their movements outside the compound and took their passports. This, they did not mind; they were excited with the sweet smell of adventure in the air.

When the day of departure came, Maung Maung and Vuthy were brought on board a ship where they joined six other sailors. They were told that money was owed for administrative costs and that they would be able to pay them off by working on the ship. Their families would however still receive a third of their salaries while they work to offset their debts and receive their salaries thereafter. A few days later, the ship’s journey was interrupted for customs control and the fishermen had to disembark. Muang Muang and Vuthy were however not in Thailand or anywhere near it, but in the Dog Leg area of Papua New Guinea. Little did they know that they had just been rescued from the grasps of a human trafficking syndicate.

The Dog Leg, located next to the southern border of Indonesia and north of Australia, is a rich fishing ground where dreams of fishermen are swallowed and dissolved in the vastness of the sea. Poorly monitored due to its vastness, and lack of patrolling capabilities on the side of the authorities, the Dog Leg is a domain where ships conduct illegal activities with impunity, historically piracy, and today, fishing using slave labour. Brutal labour conditions reign on board these vessels as sailors are forced to work long hours to meet the demands of the most exquisite palates in the West for fish at bargain basement prices.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), together with the governments of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Indonesia, Thailand and Australia, intercepted the vessel as it attempted to escape. Authorities identified many illegal practices on board and impounded the ship while IOM, following its mandate of promoting humane and orderly migration, provided humanitarian assistance to Maung Maung, Vuthy, and the other trafficked victims. This included the provision of food, temporary accommodation, medical attention and counselling. IOM will also facilitate their return to their respective home countries and provide long-term legal and psychosocial assistance in close partnership with local organisations.

IOM, with the support of governments, non-governmental organisations and the United Nations, seeks to provide protection and support to potential victims of trafficking. It uses several indicators to determine if a person is a victim of trafficking. These include the means used by smugglers to convince victims to take on a certain job (threats, deception, abduction, coercion among others) and evidence of exploitation (withheld wages, physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, confiscated travel documents, restricted movements). The accounts of Maung Maung and Vuthy very much match the profile of a victim of trafficking.

Identifying victims of trafficking is difficult because of its illicit nature. Out of millions of men, women and children trafficked each year, only about 45,000 victims are ever identified. IOM assists one in seven trafficking survivors identified worldwide through its counter-trafficking programmes, projects and return and reintegration assistance. George Gigauri, head of IOM Papua New Guinea, noted that the rescue of the fishermen from the nets of human trafficking would not have been possible without the joint support of the PNG authorities and the governments of Indonesia and Australia.

"Human trafficking is a transnational crime that can only be tackled with the joint efforts of governments and international law in protecting the rights of victims. We will continue our efforts to search for other similar vessels believed to hide more of such victims and free them from a life of slavery at sea".

Fortunately for Maung Maung and Vuthy, their journey was disrupted early on, just before they were about to be taken to another ship where their real journey would begin - trapped for years in the vastness of the sea at the mercy of greedy and demanding captains on board vessels of modern day slavery. They returned home unharmed with the help of IOM.

For further information, please contact Beatriz Muñoz Girardengo at IOM Papua New Guinea, Tel: + (675) 7025 6220 Email: bmunoz@iom.int