Over 500 New Human Trafficking Victims Identified in Indonesia since Benjina ‘Slave Fisheries’ Exposed

Fishermen believed to be victims of trafficking are moved from Benjina to Tual. © IOM 2015

By Paul Dillon

A year-long media investigation into the brutal treatment of men trafficked into virtual slavery aboard foreign fishing vessels operating in Indonesia generated stark international headlines:

  • Nearly 550 Modern-day Slaves Were Rescued From Indonesia’s Fish Trade. And That’s Just the Beginning
  • Your Seafood Might Come From Slaves
  • Hundreds Forced to Work as Slaves to Catch Seafood for Global Supply

Published on March 25th, the Associated Press investigation offered a glimpse into some of the corrupt practices that support the multi-billion dollar fish processing industry – a business that launders fish caught by trafficking victims into a supply chain that delivers seafood to North America, Europe and Australia.

IOM Indonesia’s efforts to repatriate hundreds of victims of trafficking in the fisheries industry in recent years and AP’s story shone a light on a common practice. Traffickers lure impoverished Cambodians and Burmese to Thai ports with promises of well-paying jobs, and instead drug and/or press-gang them onto fishing vessels, keeping them at sea for years at a time, subjecting them to beatings, privation and, for those with the will to resist, sometimes death.

Virtually overnight, the hamlet of Benjina, a dot on the map in eastern Indonesia’s Aru Islands, emerged as a grim symbol of modern day slavery. For ten weeks it was the focus of intense activity by IOM, the Government of Indonesia and four other ASEAN partners, resulting in the rescue of over 600 victims of trafficking and their repatriation to Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

The Indonesian government has extended its moratorium on foreign fisheries in Indonesian waters through the end of October 2015 in order to pursue its investigation, and has suspended the fishing licenses of some prominent Indonesian firms associated with Thai fishing companies.

Unanswered thus far are the troubling questions about how many more “Benjinas” there are in those remote, far-flung island groups in the sprawling archipelago? How many more vessels are crewed by trafficking victims? And how many thousands of men are still out there awaiting rescue? The Indonesian government is now investigating with IOM’s assistance.

The Papua New Guinea government last week also launched an investigation into possible cases of trafficking in its fishing grounds neighboring Indonesia. Thus far, eight cases have been identified by IOM.

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. 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 15-20 crew.

A further 156 foreigners in Indonesian immigration detention centres have been identified as victims of trafficking. Last week 33 Cambodian victims were repatriated with IOM’s assistance.

Victims of trafficking in Tual island. © IOM 2015


“As civilized nations, we should balance the business aspects with the livelihood and welfare of people.” ­Indonesian Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (KKP) Susi Pudjiastuti

The Benjina story began innocently enough during an off-the-record conversation, a ‘backgrounder”, between a Jakarta-based correspondent and IOM Indonesia Deputy Chief of Mission Steve Hamilton, on another issue entirely.

“I mentioned that over the past few years we’ve provided Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) to almost 500 fishermen trafficked aboard foreign vessels operating in Maluku province and it was one of those stories that wasn’t getting much attention,” Hamilton said. “It seemed there was probably a link between the trafficking of these men; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF) in Indonesia; and the companies supplying seafood to America and Europe.”

AP ultimately chased the story 3,000km east of Jakarta to remote Benjina, a busy fisheries weight station operated far from prying eyes by an Indonesian firm called Pusaka Benjina Resources. Foreign direct investment laws in Indonesia require foreign entities to create a local affiliate headed by an Indonesian partner. In the fisheries, these firms are used to allow foreign vessels to reflag as Indonesian.

The Rescue

“We were very concerned about the safety of some of the men we’d managed to interview in Benjina. That’s when we came back (to IOM) to see what could be done.” AP Correspondent Margie Mason.

The AP team communicated periodically with Hamilton. In late March they said they were ready to publish their account with one caveat.

“We were very concerned about the safety of some of the men we had managed to interview in Benjina,” recalls AP correspondent Margie Mason. “We had these incredible images of men being kept in a cage. There is power in letting people see these guys’ faces. But we knew the only way we could do it is if we knew for sure the men in the photos and video were safe. That’s when we came back to IOM to see what could be done.”

They had good reason to be concerned. There are at least 60 graves in the Benjina facility, marked by wooden plaques and Thai script. IOM later determined all of the trafficked men were provided with a Thai seaman’s ticket in case their vessel was inspected. Even in death, they weren’t allowed to reclaim their nationality.

IOM coordinated with the Indonesian National Police (INP), who swept into Benjina, rescued the men and brought them to a secure location in Jakarta. With those vulnerable sources now protected, AP could file their story.

The Indonesian government reacted swiftly. Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti was already concerned about IUUF. In November 2014 she had imposed a moratorium on the issuance and renewal of licenses for foreign fishing vessels. She promptly dispatched a team to Benjina to investigate.

“Indonesia sees the oceans as the nation’s future,” the Minister said on July 30 in comments marking World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.  “This is why we are enforcing appropriate fishing businesses in Indonesia. I would like to encourage other countries to do the same to enforce rules and stop IUUF. There are a lot of human trafficking cases involved in IUUF vessels. We need to put good governance in place and as civilized nations we should balance the business aspects with the livelihood and welfare of people.”

As news of the government’s visit spread, hundreds of men emerged pleading to be removed from the Benjina facility. Ministry officials acted promptly and over 200 men were immediately transported to Tual island, the administrative capital of southeast Maluku regency.

Task force arrives Tual island together with the trafficked victims. © IOM 2015

IOM Mobilizes

“The feeling in Benjina was really oppressive; the private security were trying to intimidate everyone, including hovering over us.” IOM Senior Migration Health Adviser Dr. Sajith Gunaratne

IOM was mobilized to assist.  At the government’s request, the organization based its operations in Tual to assess the men’s condition; support the delivery of medical aid and psycho-social assistance; and critically, determine whether or not they were genuinely victims of trafficking.

IOM mobilized a multi-agency taskforce to respond to Benjina, which included the INP, Myanmar, Cambodian and Laotian embassy officials, and the Directorate General for Immigration (Ditjenim).

“We quickly found ourselves expanding the mission from one geared towards investigation and assessment, to a much wider direct victim assistance effort for literally hundreds of men who had already been evacuated to Tual,” said Hamilton.

“The feeling in Benjina was really oppressive. The private security people were trying to intimidate everyone, including hovering over us whenever we made contact with crew members,” recalls IOM doctor Sajith Gunaratne, who traveled there in early April with the multi-agency task force.

“The captains of the boats were there and you could see the fear on the faces of the fishermen - mostly thin, young subservient men. Their eyes were full of expectation because of our presence. We wanted to get them off there as fast as possible for their own safety.”

Within two weeks of the story breaking, 367 fishermen had been removed to the port of Tual. By mid-May the caseload would more than double to 620 with the arrival of a ferry organized by IOM. Virtually all the men were determined to be victims of trafficking.

A further 577 Thai nationals remained in Benjina. Thai-speaking IOM staff deployed from Bangkok identified a vulnerable group of 42, including the elderly, the sick and several minors, who were immediately removed to Tual for assistance.

“It was clear that these men needed immediate assistance, so the Indonesian officials got them out of there on the very first boat with us,” said IOM Chief of Mission Mark Getchell, who accompanied this second joint task force, and liaised with Thai authorities.

“There were three minors, several elderly men and a couple of men who needed immediate medical attention. Officers from INP headquarters and the Cambodian embassy were part of that second visit, because there were still some Cambodian nationals there who had refused to leave until they were paid. By this point they had resigned themselves to the fact they were never going to be paid for their work and opted to return home with IOM’s assistance. ”

IOM also photographed and collected bio-data on that entire caseload and provided the information to the Thai authorities in Jakarta. It was then asked to step back and let the Thai government and the fishing companies repatriate the men.

A month into the emergency, IOM coordinated a two-day Focus Group Discussion on Maritime Security Issues in Indonesia (April 22-23), bringing together over 100 government, private sector and academic stakeholders. In light of the Benjina case, the second day zeroed in on the KKP’s case for criminal prosecutions there.

Mas Achmad Santosa, head of the National IUUF Taskforce, noted: “The government has confirmed that Benjina is a case of slavery and it may be high time to consider ratifying the Maritime Labor Convention (2006.)  The Benjina case was rife with violations and practices against human rights:  (a)  IUU fishing; (b)  forced labor; (c)  human trafficking, among others.”

Bejina facility.

Results - 519 New Victims Identified

In the four months since the name Benjina emerged, several things have happened.

IOM worked closely with embassy officials from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos to establish the identities of all the men and to secure travel documents. It then worked in close collaboration with the Indonesian Directorate General for Immigration to ensure that by mid-June, all 620 had been successfully repatriated.

While the Thai authorities stepped in to assist the vulnerable Thai group identified by IOM and some other Thai nationals who chose to return to Thailand, a core group of Thai captains and crew chose to remain on Benjina to await further instructions from the fishing companies.

The Indonesian government has suspended the licenses of four business groups overseeing 18 companies operating 388 vessels. It is continuing its investigation into IUUF around the archipelago.

Since June, a new KKP-IOM task force has identified 363 new cases of trafficked fishermen in Ambon, the capital of Maluku province. Arrangements are ongoing to return them home. They represent 77 of the estimated 230 vessels in Ambon harbor.

Bejina boats. © IOM 2015

During the Ambon assessments, a chartered plane organized by the fishing companies, in coordination with Cambodian authorities, flew 230 men to Cambodia, preventing the Indonesian government and IOM from documenting their stories. Many of them are believed to have been trafficked. IOM’s review of crewmen detained in Indonesian immigration detention centres has identified an additional 156 victims.

Finally, in the waters off neighboring Papua New Guinea, IOM and local authorities are investigating 34 vessels suspected of having fled Indonesia in the wake of the Benjina case. IOM’s assessment of the first eight crewmen interviewed determined that all were victims of trafficking.