At least 58 Cambodians were among the more than 300 enslaved fishermen recently rescued from a remote island in Indonesia’s Maluku province, an intergovernmental migration body said Tuesday.
The Indonesian government rescued the fishermen from the island village of Benjina on Friday, following a yearlong investigation by The Associated Press (AP), which revealed that migrant workers from Burma, Laos and Cambodia were stranded on the island after being forced to work on mostly Thai-captained fishing boats trawling Indonesian waters.
The AP reported that the enslaved fishermen, who endured shocking abuses on the ships, including lashes with toxic stingray tails, were dumped on the island for refusing to work and because of a moratorium on foreign fishing issued by the Indonesian government in an attempt to crack down on illegal operations.
On the island, some of the men were locked in cages belonging to Pusaka Benjina Resources, the only registered fishing company on Benjina, while others hid in the forest to evade slave catchers.
According to figures provided by the Indonesian government to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 58 of 319 fishermen rescued from Benjina and taken to Tual, an island city to the north, were Cambodian.
“In terms of Cambodians, there are reportedly 58 of them staying in a government facility in Tual,” IOM spokesman Joe Lowry said Tuesday.
“We are trying to get people there as quick as we can. We’ve had some difficulties with transport, airplane failure, but we should have someone on the ground tomorrow. Then we will be in a better position to give verified information,” he added.
Mr. Lowry said a few staff members from IOM’s Indonesia office were already in Tual and that Steve Hamilton, the office’s deputy chief of mission, was expected to arrive today.
“When our senior person arrives in Tual, which will probably be tomorrow, we will be able to confirm that number  and let you know what the plans are for repatriation,” he said.
The AP investigation revealed that nearly 1,000 fishermen had likely been stranded on Benjina, the hub for an operation that was using forced labor to plunder Indonesia’s waters and ship the catch back to Thailand, where it was then exported to the U.S., Europe and elsewhere in Asia.
Brett Dickson, the IOM’s project manager in Phnom Penh, said a Khmer-language translator from his office was also expected to arrive in Tual today to help with the repatriation of the Cambodians.
“It’s pretty huge in terms of numbers,” he said. “I think that there are likely more [Cambodians]… there [on Benjina].”
Thousands of Cambodian migrant workers seek employment in Thailand every year, the majority of whom enter the country without proper documents after paying brokers to smuggle them in with the promise of well-paying jobs.
“When they go without proper documents, it leaves them vulnerable to being forced into labor,” Mr. Dickson said, “like on Thai fishing boats.”
A secretary for Cambodian Ambassador to Indonesia Khan Pharith, who identified herself only as Lia, said a team from the Cambodian Embassy in Jakarta had also been dispatched to find out if any more of its nationals were still stranded on Benjina.
She said the embassy could not comment further because it had not fully assessed the situation.
Koy Kuong, the spokesman for Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, could not be reached.
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