Indonesia forms team to probe fishing slavery allegations

JAKARTA (AFP) - The Indonesian government has announced it will form a special team to investigate allegations of slavery in the fishing industry, as officials prepare to return hundreds of foreign crewmen to their homelands.

The head of the fisheries ministry's illegal fishing task force, Mas Achmad Santosa, said several fishermen had claimed that an Indonesian company, which employed more than 1,000 foreigners from several Southeast Asian nations, engaged in slavery and torture in the remote east of the country.

The issue was a priority when President Joko Widodo chaired a cabinet meeting late Tuesday, with fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti declaring afterwards Indonesia must show it is serious about tackling the problem and stamping out illegal fishing.

"We must solve this. It should never happen again, because it is embarrassing for Indonesia," she said, announcing plans for the special team.

The International Organisation for Migration has estimated up to 4,000 fishermen may be stranded in remote parts of Indonesia, mostly dumped by illicit fishing operators.

It believes the large majority of those working in the illegal fishing industry in Indonesia are victims of trafficking.

Fishermen from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand are among those said to have been forced to trawl Indonesia's bountiful fishing grounds.

Santosa told AFP that more than 350 mainly Myanmarese fishermen were transferred at the weekend from Benjina island, off the coast of West Papua province, for their safety.

There were fears they could face a backlash after speaking out about their treatment, he added.

The government has said it will return these men to their homelands.

A dozen Thai workers have also been taken to the port city of Ambon in Indonesia's east for health and identity checks by Thai officials, before being sent home later this week.

Santosa said there was a "strong indication" that Indonesian firm Pusaka Benjina Resources, the company at the centre of allegations of mistreatment and slavery, was a shell company brokering permits for Thai fishing operators.

"The real operators of the fishing business here are Thai companies," he said.

The Widodo administration has taken a hardline approach to illegal fishing, seizing and scuttling unlicenced vessels.