YANGON, Myanmar – More than 100 Burmese men who worked as slave fishermen in Indonesia have arrived home and were waiting Friday to return to their villages to be reunited with families many have been separated from for years.
A chartered plane from Ambon, in eastern Indonesia, carried 125 men to Yangon on Thursday evening. It was the biggest group repatriated following an Associated Press investigation that exposed labor abuses in the fishing industry involving hundreds of men being tricked or sold onto Thai boats and brought to Indonesian waters where they were forced to work nearly nonstop under brutal conditions.
The men wore new matching white shirts and hats as they streamed out of the airport where they were greeted by flashing cameras from local reporters. Some smiled and waved at AP journalists they recognized, while others had a look of uncertainty on their faces as they boarded buses to spend the night at a social services compound. A few family members and friends also were there to meet loved ones they thought they might never see again.
"We are so happy that we are finally seeing our son for the first time in nearly four years," said mother Tin Tin Mya, who met her son, Nan Lu, at the airport. "We can't express how happy we are to see him alive. As a mother, my only wish was to have my son back home safe and sound."
Last month, the Indonesian Fisheries Ministry evacuated more than 300 men from the remote island village of Benjina. The number of foreign fishermen rescued or identified by authorities has risen steadily in the past month to nearly 600, reflecting how widespread and deep-rooted the problem of forced labor is on the boats that bring them from Thailand.
On Monday, 59 Cambodians became the first rescued slaves from that country to fly home. Before their departure, more than 360 former slaves were gathered on the island of Tual, including some who got word of the rescue by cell phone messages and traveled hundreds of kilometers (miles) by boat to join the others. Another 230 Burmese and Cambodians have been identified and are waiting to leave Benjina, while hundreds of Thai nationals still have not been processed there.
In addition, the AP recently found more foreign migrants desperate to go home during a visit to the provincial capital of Ambon. The International Organization for Migration suspects thousands of others are stranded on boats or surrounding islands.
At least two more chartered flights are planned from Indonesia to Myanmar to bring the stranded men home.
Associated Press Writer Aye Aye Win contributed to this report from Yangon, Myanmar.