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Human Trafficking a Hidden Toll of Indonesian Fisheries Wars

FILE - Malaysian and Vietnamese fishing boats are destroyed for illegal fishing by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, police and navy, in Batam, Riau Islands, Indonesia, April 5, 2016. The Indonesian government reportedly sank 28 illegal fore
FILE - Malaysian and Vietnamese fishing boats are destroyed for illegal fishing by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, police and navy, in Batam, Riau Islands, Indonesia, April 5, 2016. The Indonesian government reportedly sank 28 illegal fore

Indonesia’s eye-catching moves to secure its fisheries under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo are, on one hand, an extension of the resource nationalism that has touched nearly every industry, from mining to palm oil, in the island nation.

But the fisheries battle is not just about natural resources. It’s also about human resources, namely trafficking and labor abuse of fishermen from Indonesia and neighboring countries.

Because the fishing industry in Southeast Asia is lightly regulated, exact numbers of victims are hard to come by. But there are signs that it is huge.

A single 2016 investigation by the Associated Press discovered 4,000 fishermen, from Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand, who were being trafficked in Indonesia’s Maluku islands. A different investigation, also from 2016, by the International Organization for Migration, spoke to more than 1,100 trafficking victims in Indonesia.

“The men labor under conditions more reminiscent of the 11th century than the 21st,” said Paul Dillon, an IOM project manager. “They are beaten with gaffs and stingray tails, starved and deprived of sleep, and close to 80 percent of those we interviewed said they worked more than 16 hours every day.”

Aggressive crackdown

“The vessels themselves [where human trafficking occurs] are engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” Dillon said. “Many are simply vacuuming the seas and destabilizing fish stocks, which is putting legitimate enterprises out of business and ruining coastal economies that support tens of millions of ordinary Indonesians.”

Indonesia’s fisheries ministry estimates illegal fishing costs 30 trillion rupiah (about $3.1 billion) per year, while the People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice, or KIARA, pegs it higher, at 50 trillion rupiah or $5.2 billion, not including lost tax income or environmental damage.

In 2016, the fisheries ministry announced a human rights audit related to human trafficking on the seas, but the results are not yet published.

In a report, fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti estimated there are “approximately 250,000 Indonesian crews on foreign vessels operating across continents that remain unprotected.”

Widespread regional problem

The fisheries ministry and IOM’s report details a culture of “deceptive recruitment, abuse, non-payment of wages and even murder” in the fishing industry.

It is not easy to delineate the problem along national lines. Most of the migrant workers in the Associated Press investigation were from Myanmar, and were reported to have been kept in cages and tortured.

In 2015, five Thais and three Indonesians were jointly tried for human trafficking in the seafood industry. One Myanmar man came forward with his story of a decade of slavery on a Thai fishing boat.

It is impossible to know how many trafficked individuals are still trapped in the industry, Dillon said. A Jokowi administration task force against illegal fishing, which includes Marine Police, Coast Guard and Navy, has likely deterred some new offenders, but the task force leader admitted to VOA last week that they still had limited resources.

So far, the task force has investigated 186 vessels on human trafficking violations, its leader, Mas Achmad Santosa, told VOA. It has also collaborated with IOM Indonesia and the Ministry of Manpower to repatriate 1,342 victims of trafficking to their home countries: Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

Prevention and rehabilitation

With regards to domestic labor, “the lack of both national and international regulations to protect Indonesian workers in foreign fishing vessels makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” Santosa said. Indonesia has regulated its migrant workers’ activities since 2004, he said, but that regulation (Law No. 39) focused on “land-based workers,” leaving sea-based workers’ rights unclear.

He added, “Officers at ports are mostly unaware of the forms of human rights violations taking place within their jurisdiction, especially trafficking.”

There are government initiatives to assist returning trafficking victims, like through Indonesia’s 2007 Anti-Trafficking Law, which provides a right to health care, psychological support and counseling, temporary shelter and legal aid, according to a 2016 NEXUS Institute report. But returning victims don’t have sufficient access to general social services, i.e. those not directly targeted at trafficking victims, according to that same report.

The very big picture behind illegal and unsustainable fishing practices is skyrocketing global demand for seafood. For that, Dillon said, “only sustained consumer demand, that the sale of slave-caught seafood in local supermarkets and restaurants cease, is going to hold those parties accountable and turn the ship around.”