Fishermen forced to play waiting game

Fishermen forced to play waiting game

Special report: Repatriation of 42 Thais delayed pending checks on their identity, writes Jeerawat Na Thalang in Ambon, Indonesia

There are 75 Thai fishing boats and trawlers stranded in the Ambon Island harbour, Indonesia, as authorities there investigate illegal fishing. (Photo by Jetjaras Na Ranong)
There are 75 Thai fishing boats and trawlers stranded in the Ambon Island harbour, Indonesia, as authorities there investigate illegal fishing. (Photo by Jetjaras Na Ranong)

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) on Sunday evacuated 42 Thai fishermen from Benjina, a remote fishing island in Indonesia, as part of their repatriation to Thailand, according to an IOM official.

"Some of the fishermen are vulnerable. They are very old, injured and crippled and need medical attention," Mark Getchell, chief of mission at the Jakarta-based IOM, told the Bangkok Post in Ambon.

"Most likely they are trafficking victims. They receive little pay." The IOM said three Thais in the group were under 18 years old. Mr Getchell said other crew members told him they were tricked into working on fishing boats.

Mr Getchell said the Thai fishermen have been sent to Dobo island for medical care. They will soon join 204 Myanmar and 38 Cambodian fishermen who left Benjina Tuesday for Tual island, a transit site, as part of their journey back home.

The Bangkok Post could not independently verify how many of the Thais, which the IOM said are evacuating, are trafficking victims.

While the Myanmar and Cambodian fishermen are set to board a plane back to their home countries soon, the repatriation of the 42 Thai fishermen is being delayed pending checks on their identity by the Thai government.

On Sunday, the IOM, the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Indonesian police and a Cambodian consular officer went to Benjina island so they could bring Myanmar and Cambodian fishermen home.

The IOM is working with the Myanmar and Cambodian governments on the repatriation of fishermen who may be victims of forced labour on fishing vessels.

On Sunday, another group of 128 Myanmar fishermen returned home on flights arranged by the Myanmar government.

The 42 Thai fishermen are among 419 Thais who told the IOM they want to go home. Another 165 Thai fishermen contacted by the IOM said they wanted to carry on working.

Mr Getchell shared his information with the Thai embassy. Staff told him the embassy also has a list of 275 Thais wanting to go home, which they received from companies or fishing operators.

He said the embassy is arranging for certificates of identification, an important document for repatriation, to make sure the 275 people are Thais.

He said the IOM plans to produce its own list of Thai fishermen and compare it with the 275-member list held by the embassy later this week.

"We are not sure if any of the 42 people are on the embassy's list, but they need care and protection," he said.

The 204 Myanmar and 38 Cambodian fishermen were to board a ferry from Benjina to Tual island on Tuesday, and then wait to be sent home.

On the way, the ferry was to pick up the 42 Thai fishermen, who are now waiting on Dobo island for the trip, to the Tual island transit spot.

The IOM officer said he needs help from the Thai government with the repatriation process.

The Consular Affairs Department head is scheduled to arrive on Ambon island today to help in the repatriation process for Thais stranded in Indonesia.

Hundreds of Thai fishermen are stranded in Benjina waiting to go home. Some were trafficking victims forced to work in Indonesian waters for years.

Others were crewing the 53 Thai fishing boats now docked in Benjina after the Indonesian government introduced measures late last year to combat illegal fishing in its waters.

Indonesian authorities ordered all foreign boats to temporarily dock at local ports to verify whether they have been fishing legally.

Stress levels were running high as the stranded Thai fishermen watched the Myanmar and Cambodian fishermen being boarded onto the ferry in Benjina on the way to Tual island.

Visu Puthathan, 34, said: "We have been waiting and waiting. We want to go home. Life is hard here." Mr Visu said he has been fishing in Indonesian waters for more than two years.

However, his Thai-registered boat, Siriporn 4, has been docked for six months, pending verification by the Indonesian government.

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