JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesian police have rescued 45 Burmese fishermen, believed to be trafficking victims, from a hotel in central Jakarta where they were taken after traveling on fake documents, officials and the men said Thursday.
Authorities tracked down the group Wednesday by zeroing in on a cellphone signal, said Lt. Col. Arie Dharmanto, head of the National Police human trafficking unit. They had been brought to the capital from the eastern Indonesian island of Ambon.
"They apparently were human trafficking victims," said National Police Detective Chief Lt. Gen. Budi Waseso. "We are still investigating this case to reveal the human trafficking networks and who is the mastermind behind this."
Ambon is in the same island chain as the remote village of Benjina, which was exposed in March by The Associated Press as an area where hundreds of foreign fishermen from Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos were being forced to work as slaves on Thai-run boats. Some men were found in a cage there.
One of the newly rescued men who spoke to the AP said he was confused about what happened and how he and the others ended up in Jakarta. He said an agent lured them from Myanmar to Thailand with the promise of jobs there, but they were instead put on fishing boats and taken to Ambon, where they worked on four different vessels. He said all were issued fake Thai seamen documents, even though they are Myanmar nationals. He said they worked for the company for up to four years and had been paid less than what they were promised. Another man said he wasn't given a salary for three years.
"We were beaten on the boat and were not allowed to rest, even when we were sick," said the Burmese man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution.
He said they were flown to Jakarta two months ago for documents and then returned to Ambon. They flew back to the capital again this week before being rescued. The reason for the two trips was not immediately clear.
Police are working to determine whether the men were trafficked and how they managed to travel without proper paperwork. They are being sheltered in a safe house for protection.
"They are just victims. We will uncover the truth, including how the network runs its crime and how it could happen here," Waseso said, adding that police will question and investigate the company that recruited the crew. Its name was not released.
The AP's report has caused a shakeup in the fishing industry. It resulted in the repatriation of more than 800 men. In addition, seven people have been arrested in Indonesia along with two others in Thailand in relation to the Benjina case. Other human trafficking cases continue to be investigated.
Associated Press writers Ali Kotarumalos and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta and Esther Htusan in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.