Article Movement & Migration

Ghost fleets and invisible men: from slavery to statelessness

Thousands of vulnerable South-east Asian men are stranded and forgotten on remote Indonesian islands. It's time to bring them all home.

The names of all fishers quoted in this article have been changed.

Locked in cages, tortured with stingray tails and forced to fish: in March, an Associated Press (AP) exposé on modern slavery aboard Thai fishing trawlers operating in Indonesia underscored and echoed last year’s hard-hitting investigation by the Guardian, which revealed that seafood products tainted with slavery are lining our supermarket shelves. However, the true scale of this human tragedy is still unfolding and it demands urgent action from governments, industry and consumers around the world.

AP’s recent and shocking investigation focused on a far-flung island in eastern Indonesia, Benjina, and the Burmese men who were duped, kidnapped and sold into slavery aboard vessels in Thailand’s distant water fishing fleet. These brutalised men, and occasionally children, are part of a complex global seafood supply chain that earns Thailand roughly $7 billion annually in export revenues, a sizeable portion of which comes from products sold to North American and European consumers.

There must be a mountain of bones under the sea. The bones of the people could be an island. - Ko Naing

Not every victim of modern slavery in Thailand’s distant water fishing industry remains in thrall of their gangmasters, sold among floating prisons at sea or locked in cages on shore. In 2008, Al Jazeera produced a documentary telling the story of the thousands of Burmese runaways who had escaped exploitation aboard Thai trawlers and were eking out a precarious existence on the Indonesian island of Tual. In October 2014, Thailand was outraged after a high-octane investigation by Thai Rath TV discovered hundreds of Thai nationals who had escaped exploitation and were stranded on yet another Indonesian island, Ambon.

Thailand’s military government leapt into action, with Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha vowing speedy repatriations in response to tear-stricken mothers pleading for their sons’ return, televised phone calls between estranged family members and the social media hashtag “bring our Thai people home”. The government has been true to its word, with repatriations of Thai nationals from Ambon now numbering in the hundreds as nationalities are verified and documents processed on a case-by-case basis. But what about the thousands of Burmese, Cambodian and Laos men stranded and scattered across remote Indonesian islands, unable to return home?

Everyone came on Thai boats… People of Thailand and the Thai government - please don’t abandon me! My life is more than 90% identical to the Thai people who’ve been repatriated. - Somkhith

Sompong Srakaew, founder and director of Thailand-based NGO Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), and Patima Tungpuchakul, who coordinates the LPN offshoot Seafarers Action Center (SAC), have been central actors in this story as it has unfolded over the last year. They and their team have worked tirelessly with the Thai and Indonesian authorities to facilitate the identification and repatriation of khohn dtohk reuua (“people who have fallen off the boats”). In a series of dispatches from Ambon via Facebook, Srakaew has shared reports of several recent trips to Indonesian islands. Taken together, these reports outline the process through which a victim of modern slavery is rendered stateless.

In a major campaign last year, the UNHCR highlighted that statelessness still affects at least 10 million people worldwide. Although the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) has not been completely consistent in its approach to defining statelessness, it does recognise a basic form of statelessness applying to persons who are unable to receive the protection of their home country. Commonly known as de facto stateless, such people are generally unable to establish their nationality or their nationality is either disputed or ineffective. Across Thailand’s distant water fishing fleets, this kind of statelessness has become part of the business model.

It starts with the black market production of counterfeit seaman books, the official documents that are required for fishers entering or leaving Thailand aboard the country’s fishing vessels. Last August, Thai authorities raided part of a network of illegal printing presses in Bangkok, the operator of which told of one man who had come to him for 2,000 fake seaman books over the last two years, at a cost of just $4.60 each. Srakaew, along with others such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), highlights how these fake documents effectively render escaped or abandoned victims of trafficked, forced and bonded labour stateless as soon as they step off the boat.

Our body is here but our mind is at home. If it was possible to walk back home, we would do it right away. - Samneang

Counterfeit seaman books use the names of deceased men along with photos of the actual fisher to turn, for example, a Cambodian or Burmese man into a Thai national. When victims of exploitation aboard fishing boats escape ashore or when “unruly” fishers are abandoned by vessel operators they become invisible, because their identification documents obfuscate their true nationality. Some eventually integrate into the local Indonesian community or end up anonymously buried in the graveyards of whichever island they have ended up on. But most return to the boats or resort to hand-to-mouth work hauling fish in the ports, providing, Srakaew suggests, a rotating pool of cheap slave labour for unscrupulous vessel operators.

Some of us got off [the boat] to buy some drinks for fellow workers. The captain was so angry he beat us and stabbed me. He abandoned me on an Indonesian island. There, I was stuck on land carrying rocks in exchange for food. - Chang

Depriving victims of trafficking, forced and bonded labour of their very identity also serves another purpose; it shifts responsibility from vessel operators onto the victim themselves, as they can now be picked up by Indonesian authorities as undocumented migrants. In October 2014, the Thai media reported that Ambon’s immigration detention centre was holding 1,772 people with seaman books, just under a third of whom were estimated to actually be Thai nationals.

IOM’s deputy chief in Indonesia has estimated that there are around 4,000 stranded fishers scattered across various Indonesian islands. Getting these stateless people home is a bureaucratic labyrinth, requiring the coordination of consular authorities in multiple states. To date, fewer than 1,000 have been repatriated. For some of those stranded, the nationality verification process is complicated by the fact that they do not possess proper identity documents even in their home country, or they simply can’t remember their home address. Victims of modern slavery are also mixed up in these repatriations and it is uncertain whether governments are effectively screening and identifying for indicators of human trafficking, forced and bonded labour or offering appropriate assistance to those already identified by international organisations such as IOM.

We have gathered enough witnesses to prove his existence. His cousins were surprised that he was still alive. - Samak Tubtanee, LPN caseworker

Meanwhile, LPN highlight that many khohn dtohk reuua are slipping through the net of South-east Asian governments. Following field visits to multiple Indonesian islands, LPN argues that there is an urgent need for humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, medicine and shelter - a reflection of the fact that most available funding is earmarked for getting stranded fishers on flights back home. Srakaew has criticised Thailand’s military government for turning a blind eye to the plight of foreign nationals brought to Indonesia by Thai fishing companies. Although he argues that Thailand should be more proactive in its approach to non-Thai fishers in need of assistance, Srakaew holds the private sector ultimately responsible for the situation, calling on Thai fishing companies to pick up the costs of repatriation and provide compensation to exploited workers.

With the Thai government facing strong international pressure to crack down on both trafficking and illegal fishing, honest reporting on the problems that drive reform in the private sector may be becoming harder. In reference to reports on the situation in Ambon from Thapanee Ietsrichai, a journalist at the (partially state-owned) broadcaster Channel 3, Thailand’s prime minister and former army general bluntly informed journalists in March that they would “have to be held responsible” for publishing any news that damaged the reputation of Thailand’s multibillion dollar, export-oriented seafood industry.

In response to the AP story, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited vessel operators accused of using slave labour to “come in” and work with the government to set the record straight. The prime minister has also issued steely warnings to the big fishing companies implicated in abuse but it remains unclear whether the Thai Overseas Fishing Association (TOFA) has conducted a proper internal investigation of the allegations levelled against one of its member companies. In early 2015, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI) busted a human trafficking network using the large refrigerated cargo vessels typically owned by TOFA companies to transport victims to fishing boats in Indonesia.

The only thing that awaits us here is death. - Hla Phyo

The problem of South-east Asia’s stateless ex-slaves and khohn dtohk reuua is not going away. In May, Indonesian authorities identified more than 2,000 Thai, Burmese, Laos and Cambodian fishers on one island, most of whom they suspect are victims of human trafficking and exploitation. It’s time for governments, the private sector and civil society to work together systematically to ensure that stranded fishers and victims of exploitation aboard fishing vessels operating in Indonesia are identified, processed and brought home swiftly and provided assistance and compensation where appropriate. For some fishers long dreaming of home, this is already several decades overdue.

Image (C) Associated Press

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