The Global Catch: Trafficking of Fishermen

Although trafficking continues to capture the imaginations of the global public, we rarely hear about trafficked men. Most of the international focus is on women and children; especially those trafficked for sexual exploitation. This week Twitter is especially busy with tweets about the upcoming Counter Child Trafficking Online Conference. Kevin Bales is personally inviting people to register for what is lauded to be the largest online anti-trafficking summit!

In the course of this field research many stakeholders mentioned trafficking as big problem in Malaysia, including rumors about immigration officials selling deportable asylum seekers to brokers who would place them in forced labor or indentured servitude situations.  However, when pressed to provide more concrete data or even estimates most service providers said they really did not know the scale of the phenomenon as all trafficked persons are housed in government-run shelters and are not assisted by civil society organizations.  Approximately 1,100 women and children are provided shelter in government run houses, the majority of whom are thought to be victims of human trafficking.

Having heard these kinds of reports, we started digging more systematically and finally encountered an organization, Tenaganita, which conducted a fact-finding mission to Tanjung Manis in Sarawak to investigate trafficking of 60 Cambodian fishermen. Some of the “fishermen” have been kidnapped (after being treated to one too many drinks), while others were recruited under false pretenses to work in construction but found themselves forced to work on Thai boats on high seas instead.  Tenaganita learned about them when a couple of the fishermen literally jumped ship and searched for help.  The organization found others in detention centers.  After jumping ship they were recruited to work on rubber plantations only to be deemed illegal migrants and locked up by immigration authorities.

Tenaganita believes that the 60 trafficked fishermen represent a proverbial tip of the iceberg. The Thai fishing industry is dependent on migrant workers, as Thai men are no longer willing to face the dangers of fishing on high seas. Many of the trafficked fishermen were in poor health, not only because they worked hard for two or three years without spending any time on dry land, but also because their diet consisted of fish only; as a result they had vitamin deficiencies and many ailments.

Fishermen who escape or enter Malaysia without documentation are arrested under Section 6(1) of the Immigration Act. The sentence carries affine of RM 10,000 (app. $3,300) or imprisonment of up to five years or both and a mandatory whipping of no more than six strokes of the ‘rotan’ (rattan canes). The question remains: How many more fisherman are working as forced laborers on trawler boats?

The 60 fishermen were lucky, because Tenaganita worked with a Cambodian NGO and the Cambodian Government who ultimately negotiated their release from the Malaysian detention center.


As one of the program staff remarked, perhaps before we enjoy the next seafood dish we should think where the prawns come from and who is catching them.

2 thoughts on “The Global Catch: Trafficking of Fishermen

  1. This really calls for UN, ILO and IMO involvement. And it might be, like with Apple or Nike and “sweatshops” an idea to think about some stewardship like the seals “tuna” or “dolphin safe” found on fish wrappers/packaging already.


  2. This has been a custom in “marine life” since the beginning of time probably, certainly “shanghai-ing” as it used to be called in Europe (again after a few drinks too many usually) has been around from the seventeen-hundreds well into the nineteen-hundreds as many biographies attest to. If it was common back then in Europe where you would have easy recourse to police and courts, then I would imagine it is even more prevalent in e.g. Asia and maybe even some of these “pirates” harassing ships near Somalia are actually forced labor?


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