- Associated Press - Friday, April 3, 2015

BENJINA, Indonesia (AP) — Hundreds of fishermen raced to be rescued Friday from an isolated Indonesian island following an Associated Press investigation that revealed many of the men were enslaved aboard boats catching seafood that could end up in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

Indonesian officials probing labor abuses told the migrant workers they were allowing them to leave for another island by boat out of concern for their safety. Some 350 fishermen hustled out from nearby trawlers, villages and even the jungle to be able to make the trip.

“I will go see my parents,” said Win Win Ko, 42, smiling to reveal a mouth full of missing teeth. “They haven’t heard from me, and I haven’t heard from them since I left.”

That was four years ago. He left impoverished Myanmar on the promise of getting a good job in neighboring Thailand, but like many others stranded in the island village of Benjina, he was instead duped into getting on a fishing boat that took him thousands of miles from home with no return. He said his four teeth were kicked out by a Thai boat captain’s military boots because he was not moving fish fast enough from the deck to the hold below.

The men began getting news about the rescue as a downpour started, and some ran through the rain. They sprinted back to their boats, jumping over the rails and throwing themselves through windows. They stuffed their meager belongings into plastic bags and rushed back to the dock, not wanting to be left behind.

A small boat went from trawler to trawler picking up men who wanted to go and was soon loaded down with about 30 men.

The Indonesian delegation began interviewing men on boats and assessing the situation on the island this week, and have heard of the same abuses fishermen told the AP in a story published last week. They described being beaten, kicked and whipped with stingray tails and given Taser-like electric shocks. Some said they fell ill and were not given medicine; others said had been promised jobs in Thailand but were instead taken to Indonesia, where they were made to work 20- to 22-hour days with no time off for little or zero pay.

Initially, about 20 men from Myanmar, also known as Burma, were told they could be moved from Benjina to neighboring Tual island for their safety following interviews with officials on Friday. However, as news spread that some were getting to leave the island, dozens of others started filing in from all over and sitting on the floor. An official was later asked if those hiding in the forest could come as well.

“They can all come,” said Asep Burhundun, director general of Indonesia’s Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillance. “We don’t want to leave a single person behind.”

The delegation said security in Benjina is limited, with only two Indonesian navy officials stationed there. The men will be moved to Tual — a 12-hour boat ride away — where they will stay at a Ministry of Fisheries compound until their identities can be verified.

“I’m really happy, but I’m confused,” said Nay Hle Win, 32. “I don’t know what my future is in Myanmar.”

Many of those leaving are Burmese, but about 50 Cambodians also came forward in a group. Another 50 Burmese refused to go, saying they had not received their salaries and did not want to go home empty-handed.

Thai fishermen will not be transported. They are not seen as a high security risk because most of the boat captains in Benjina are from Thailand.

Police are investigating and will decide whether to prosecute those involved, said Kedo Arya, head of Maluku province prosecutor’s office.

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Mason reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Associated Press writer Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report from Jakarta.

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