Burmese Trafficking Victims Freed in Raid

Irrawaddy news, 13th Oct 2009

BANGKOK — Eighteen human trafficking victims were freed from captivity this week when Thai police and human rights activists raided two boats and broker houses in Samaesan, a fishing town in Sattahip Province, southeast of Bangkok.

In a joint operation by the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), Seafarers’ Union of Burma (SUB) and the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), two major brokers in the region and a Thai boat captain were arrested. 

Fishing boats on the pier after returning with the day’s catch. (Photo: Alex Ellgee)

The victims, all Burmese nationals, had been assured jobs in Thai factories by job brokers inside Burma, but instead were sold as fishermen to two Thai boat captains.

Having passed through the hands of three different brokers, the victims were told they would have to work without pay for seven months in order to pay off the trafficking costs, which equaled 22,000 baht (US $650).

Following a tip off from two of the fishermen working on one of the boats, 20 DSI police waited at a pier for the boat to return from its day at sea. When the boat arrived, the police interrogated the captain while Ko Ko Aung of the SUB, which is affiliated with the International Transport Workers Federation, informed the fishermen they could leave the boat if they wished.

Meanwhile, another vessel had returned to the pier and police boarded it, but they missed the captain who they believe had been alerted to their presence and fled. Six fishermen on the boat asked to be freed, leaving three who had finished their seven months indenture.

The scrawny victims, mostly barefooted, looking exhausted, trudged ashore with small bags carrying their belongings and sat on the pier. Their expressions soon changed to happiness, as they realized that their ordeal was over.

“I can’t believe it. I thought I was going to be working like a slave on that boat for ever. I can’t believe we have been rescued,” said one 24-year-old victim from Pegu.

The fishermen were taken to Sattahip Marine Police Station and interviewed by staff from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, and later sent to a government safe house for sheltering trafficking victims.

Sitting around outside the police station, smiling at their new freedom, the men told The Irrawaddy how they had been regularly beaten by the captain with an iron rod. They worked even when they were sick, and without medicine.

The captain didn’t speak Burmese, and he couldn’t understand if one of the fishermen had a problem, said one of the fishermen.  Instead, would just get angry and violent. Several times they asked the captain to let them leave, but he told them that he had bought them, and they belonged to him.

Ko Ko Aung of the SUB, right, explains to captive Burmese fishermen that they are free and can leave the boat. (Photo: Alex Ellgee)

One of the victims said he was so desperate to escape that one night, in spite of dangerous waters, he joined two others and attempted to swim to shore. He lost the others on the way, he said, and when he arrived on land he was quickly rounded up by brokers because of his shaved head, which all trafficking victims share so that they can be identified by brokers. He never saw his two friends again.

As a result of his attempted escape, and to make an example, every night for two months the broker tied his hands together.

“It didn’t matter if my hands were tied together, we were all in prison.” he said. 

Every evening after they had unloaded the day’s catch, the brokers would pick them up and return them to their room and then padlock the door from the outside. The room consisted of a few rugs and one small fan. The windows were boarded up to prevent escape.

When the victims had been interviewed, it was decided they would lead police to the fishing village to rescue other trafficking victims.

A few of the fishermen led a four-car convoy through winding streets. 

Arriving at one location, the police and activists entered the broker’s home and ordered her to open a padlock on an upstairs room. Inside the room were four young men. They were led to cars and two more fishermen were collected from another room on the opposite side of the road.

One of the boys, 15, was asked what he missed most while in captivity.

He told The Irrawaddy: “I couldn’t miss anything. I had so much pain and suffering that I could only think about how to deal with the next thing.”

Two other minors were found aboard a ship, one 15, and the other 16.

Activists and police outside a room with four human trafficking victims locked inside. (Photo: Alex Ellgee)

The oldest man in captivity on one boat was 51. He had completed a prestigious engineering course in Burma and had worked for the government but didn’t have enough money to survive.

“Even though I worked for my government, I didn’t have enough to take care of my son so we came to Thailand, but we ended up like this,” he said.

The broker who was arrested was known by SUB and LPN as a major human trafficker in the region. She called her “leader” to put up bail. The man handed over 100,000 baht ($3,000), gold jewelry and his car. They will both face trial. Human trafficking can lead to a sentence of up to 20 years in prison in Thailand.

As the police interviewed the male broker, one of the victims looked through a window from outside and told The Irrawaddy he was happy.

”He was the one who brought us to the town in the beginning,” he said. “Now if this man is caught many people will get freedom like we have.”

Human rights worker Ko Ko Aung agreed. 

“These two are leading brokers,” he said.  “Their arrest will have a big impact on the region. Many brokers will be scared because of this and run away and more fishermen will come forward and help us in our attempt to stop it.

“One of the problems we need to overcome,” he said, “is the complicity of local police. I’m happy that we can rely on the good work of the DSI.”

He said he believed 99 percent of the fishermen in the area were victims of human trafficking.

A lot of the information in this case came from an ex-fisherman, he added.

“I suffered like those fishermen, but I was lucky and I escaped,” he said.  “I can’t stop thinking about how they suffer, so I will stop at nothing to help others get freedom.”

The human trafficking problem has led to an estimated 1,000 fishermen jumping ship and living on islands in Indonesia to escape the ill treatment of boat captains, according to activists. 

The situation is so bad, said President of SUB Aung Thu Ya, that,  “Thai skippers value the fish more than they do the Burmese fishermen.”

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