NGO, Gov’t Scrambling to Rescue Thai Seamen Stranded in Indonesia

A Thai man identified as Seri Champathong holds up a sign of his information on Tual island, Indonesia. Image: Labor Protection Network

BANGKOK — Thai authorities and labor rights group said an effort under way to bring back seven Thai fishing boat workers who had been trapped on an Indonesian island for over a decade.

The seven were former workers on trawlers who either escaped their horrid conditions or were abandoned without pay on Tual Island, according to Labor Protection Network. An activist said attempts to return them to Thai soils are difficult because five of the seven did not have national ID cards with them, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said officials are doing their best to assist them.

“I feel bad that once we met them, we couldn’t save them,” Labor Protection Network leader Patima Tungpuchayakul said.

Patima said the network only learned about the seven last month. Another Thai whom the labor network has discovered back in 2016 on the same island died a year later while waiting to be repatriated.

She said there could be over a hundred Thais could trapped on islands in Indonesia – Thais who were either lured by smugglers or coerced into slavery on unregulated fishing boats and then left behind.

The grave of a Thai man known only as “Samjan” who died on Tual Island in 2017 while waiting for a rescue. Image: Labor Protection Network

Labor Protection Network co-founder Sompong Srakaew said he will write a letter to the to alert Prime Minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha about the urgency and gravity of the issue.

“Some fell from the boat. Others went missing, and there was no accountability,” Sompong said.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks said up to 2,046 Thais trawler who had been forced to work on trawler boats have been repatriated since 2014.

But in order to be repatriated back to Thailand, those victims of seaborne slavery must go through the long process of bureaucracy. Busadee said they must first prove their nationality. The embassy will then work with Indonesian immigration office and issue a temporary travel document for those wishing to return.

The returnees will also have to sign a letter committing themselves to repay the costs incurred for the trip, Busadee said.

Race Against Time

Alarms were raised about Thai nationals being forced or duped into slavery on Indonesian fishing boats as early as 2014. Media reports at the time said up to hundreds of Thais were likely marooned in Indonesia.

Some Thais also died in their exiles while waiting for repatriation. Activists at the Labor Protection Network are concerned the same fate will befall the seven Thais they’re trying to rescue from Indonesia.

Locals dig a grave on Sep. 27, 2018, for a Thai national who was forced to work a trawler and later abandoned on Benjina Island, Indonesia. He died while waiting for a repatriation effort back to Thailand.

Campaigners said they are working with the Thai Embassy in Jakarta as well as the Local Administrative Department in Thailand to verify their Thai nationality. They feared the whole process may take too long, as was the case of “Samyan,” the Thai man in the group’s care who died on Tual island in 2017.

Those trapped said they are from different provinces ranging from Samut Prakarn, Samut Sakorn, Si Saket, Petchaboon and more. The youngest is 31 while the oldest 54 and some said they have been stranded on the island since 2002.

Patima said it is very difficult to verify their nationality without ID cards or known families. Some may have been mentally affected due to the treatment on the boats and after as well.

Beside Thais, one Laotian and 44 Burmese were also found trapped on Tual Island, activists said