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Indonesia’s war on maritime slavery continues

  • More than 1,300 trafficking victims have been repatriated from slave ships in eastern Indonesia since March 2015.
  • Only 24 are still waiting in Ambon Port, a focal point of the effort, to go home, though other slaves are probably still out there.
  • Going forward, the fisheries ministry is planning new measures to combat illegal fishing, including a new human rights certification scheme.

With a vigorous campaign to repatriate and compensate scores of foreign fishing slaves winding down, the Indonesian government has pledged to make human trafficking a central front in its war on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF).

The repatriations began last March after an Associated Press investigation into PT Pusaka Benjina Resources — a joint Indonesian-Thai fishing venture based in the remote fishing hub of Benjina in eastern Indonesia — triggered an international outcry with its gruesome portrait of a fishing industry driven by Southeast Asian slave labor.

The government responded by quickly removing hundreds of Southeast Asian migrants aboard boats offshore, nearly all of whom were later determined by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) to be victims of trafficking (VOT).

The rescue mission broadened weeks later with the renewal of a six-month licensing freeze on foreign-made fishing vessels. The action prevented hundreds of ships in eastern Indonesian port towns like Ambon, Benjina and Tual that had been grounded by the moratorium from returning to sea. Importantly, it also afforded the IOM unprecedented access to the crews on board.

Of the hundreds of Southeast Asian VOTs identified over the next 11 months, just 24 Myanmar nationals remain at Ambon Port awaiting repatriation. (Some have married locals and intend to stay.)

“If the 24 are repatriated by month’s end, it will bring the total number the IOM has repatriated since March 2015 to more than 1,300,” Paul Dillon, IOM spokesperson in Indonesia, told Mongabay, adding that just 515 foreign nationals were repatriated in the years prior to the AP investigation.

Maps of eastern Indonesia.

According to Dillon, lengthy salary negotiations between the companies, VOTs and Indonesian officials have been a major impediment to speedy repatriation.

That the government is forcing companies to settle debts with the men they enslaved, however, reflects its commitment to defending victims’ rights, regardless of their nationality.

Even so, not all the trafficking victims that could have been helped were.

“At least 700 VOTs were removed by fishing companies without having been assessed by the IOM,” Dillon said. “All indications are that they too were victims of trafficking.”

More than 300 hundred citizens of Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos were moved from the island of Benjina to neighboring Tual as part of Indonesia’s investigation into slavery on fishing vessels in its waters there last year. Photo courtesy of the fisheries ministry

Though Indonesian law prohibits foreign fishing, foreign firms have set up shell companies to get around the restrictions. The tactic disguises the fact that the true owners of ships often live abroad.

“Those we were unable to assist received nothing from the companies for their years of enslavement, and it is unclear whether those who were repatriated by the companies themselves were ever compensated,” Dillon said.

‘The government has taken a leadership role’

In early December, fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti announced the results of a wide-ranging audit carried out during the licensing moratorium. Among other findings, the audit revealed that a full 15 percent of Indonesia’s 1,132 registered foreign-made ships were guilty of human trafficking. With another 4,000 unregistered foreign-made vessels thought to be operating prior to the ban, the extent of the crime is likely even greater.

“As a modern nation, we cannot allow such slavery to continue. Every time we eat, we should remember that someone has had to work up to 20 hours per day, ration drinking water and suffer abuse in silence, without choice…they can be thrown out of the vessel if they fight or defend their rights or their dignity as a human being,” Susi was quoted as saying in a local paper.

Susi Pudjiastuti’s fisheries ministry has been seizing illegal foreign fishing vessels like this one and blowing them up at sea. Photo courtesy of the ministry

Though experts say Susi ultimately decided against converting the moratorium into a wholesale ban on foreign fishing boat licenses, she has taken a number of steps to hold firms accountable for crimes.

First, audits carried out during the moratorium led to the revocation of permits for several companies guilty of rights abuses. These include PT Maritim Timur Jaya, PT Dwikarya Reksa Abadi, PT Indojurong Fishing Industry and PT Mabiru Industry, all based in the fish-rich islands of eastern Indonesia. (The former company is owned by the tycoon Tomy Winata, according to the investigative magazine Tempo.)

In addition to revoking its permit, the ministry has brought human trafficking charges against PT Pusaka Benjina Resources, with a ruling pending in Tual Court.

Fish being loaded into a truck for processing and export in Batu Putih, North Sulawesi. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Second, the fisheries ministry is set to roll out a new human rights certification scheme in the next few weeks.

According to IUUF Task Force Chief Mas Achmad Santosa, the certificate will be required of all registered fishing boats, foreign-made or otherwise. It will oblige firms to sign a declaration on human rights and also to establish an intermediary between itself and government to ensure ongoing compliance.

Like all ministerial bylaws, implementing regulations will need to be passed by the ministry before the scheme takes effect, but experts say the move is important in setting a new bar for an industry in a process of deep reform.

“The government has taken a leadership role globally in terms of attempting the safeguard the rights of fishermen with the domestic compliance framework for vessels operating in Indonesian waters,” Dillon said.

Convincing other regional governments to get on board, however, will be a formidable challenge.

“The scale of industry-driven human trafficking within Indonesia has been significantly reduced by the Indonesian government’s efforts to crack down on IUUF,” Dillon said.

“Regrettably, Indonesia stands alone on this issue, as it appears there has been insufficient action towards building the broad effective coalition of governments, industry and civil society to create a global compact whose goal is to rid the fisheries of the scourge of slavery and eradicate IUU fisheries.”