JAKARTA, Indonesia - The number of foreign fishermen stranded on several remote eastern Indonesian islands has spiraled to 4,000, including some revealed in an Associated Press investigation to have been enslaved.
Many are migrant workers abandoned by their boat captains after the government passed a moratorium on foreign fishing five months ago, according to the International Organization for Migration in Indonesia, which released the figure Friday. However, others have been trapped on the islands for years, after being dumped by fishing boats or escaping into the jungle.
"This is the worst moment in our life right now," one former slave told the AP, which is not releasing the names of the men for their safety. "It is even worse than being in hell. We have to work every day to survive. . . . There is no hope for us any more."
The AP reported last week that slaves - some of them beaten and locked in cages - are forced to fish, and their catch ends up in the supply chains of American supermarkets and restaurants. The IOM said Friday that the report follows several years of close work with Indonesian authorities to rescue hundreds of fisherman identified as victims of trafficking.
Many of the stranded are Burmese men who went to neighboring Thailand in search of work. They were taken by boat to Indonesia, which has some of the world's richest fishing grounds. Others left behind are Cambodian and a few from the poorer parts of Thailand.
Steve Hamilton, IOM's deputy chief of mission in Indonesia, said that for every man they've already rescued, many more now need help. With the fishing ban, boats have docked or fled, ditching their crews.
"It is reasonable to expect many are victims of trafficking, if not outright slavery," he said. "But for the first time in possibly several years, their feet are touching dry land and there is a real possibility for them to go home, once we and the authorities locate and process them."
About a quarter of the men are in Benjina, a town that straddles two islands in the Maluku chain, according to an Indonesian official who recently visited the area. These men, some abandoned five, 10, even 20 years ago, load and unload fish off boats for food and pocket money, or cut and sell logs in the forest.
"We want to go back home," one dockworker chimed in. "Our body is here, but our mind is at home. If there is the possible way to walk back home, we would do it right away."
Another wiped away tears as he spoke, his voice quivering.
"If someone died here, they don't even value people's life as a dog," he said.
The moratorium was declared by Indonesia's new Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti to determine which ships are not properly licensed and crack down on illegal foreign boats. Illegal fishing drains billions of dollars from the country, and Pudjiastuti said Friday that stamping it out is key to addressing labor abuses.
"We are not letting this happen," she said. "In the past, it's been a normal practice. Not now. I'm not allowing it."