Sea slaves in Asia


Editor's note: This story is part of a project spearheaded by GlobalPost's Study
Abroad team and summer interns. They spent the summer learning about
the world's endangered oceans and their work is displayed in this
interactive graphic.

BOSTON — When the Gulf of Thailand teemed with fish, Southeast Asian fishermen would lift themselves from poverty by pulling up nets wriggling with food from the sea.

Twenty years later, with nets coming up empty, Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Malaysian fishermen have struggled to find ways to earn money. But some have been dragged back out to sea against their will, literally caught in a bad undertow of murderous captains and greedy fleet owners.

Human traffickers, mostly out of Thailand, are capturing unsuspecting men and forcing them to work aboard fishing trawlers, according to labor rights activists. Owners of large fishing boats hire the traffickers to fill out crews. While an unprecedented rise in global fish consumption, especially in America and Western Europe, has decimated the world’s wild fish stocks, consumption is expected to rise 40 percent by 2030, according to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Far out to sea, forced to work long and hard, sick and malnourished, the men might as well be captives of another century.

"If you get injured or sick while on the fishing boat, and the boat is scheduled to be out for three months, you're forced to stay on board," said Piyakrai Seelakort. "You have to stay there, sick or injured, because they'll refuse to take you to shore."

Seelakort of the Labor Rights Promotion Network in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, helps victims escape, largely from fishing boats, and help police identify traffickers.

Death is not unusual aboard these boats.

"The boat captains can be very cruel. It's very easy for [the crew] to be killed,” Seelakort said.

Thailand has historically been a safe haven for traffickers, as an infamously fraudulent Thai government has repeatedly ignored trafficking violations. In 2008 amid mounting criticism, the Royal Thai government implemented an all-inclusive law banning trafficking.

Although law enforcement officials have been trained to uphold the new legislation, corruption still abounds.

"The government has to face the facts," Seelakort said. "There's a lot of cruelty and violence on these boats."

Abid Gulzar, manager of World Vision International’s anti-trafficking advocacy project, said that the next step for the Thai government is "to establish a special police task force to crack down on human trafficking.”

Gulzar also said that the Thai government should “provide [psychological] and social support to victims of human trafficking” as well as “legal assistance during the court proceedings to prosecute perpetrators.”

Unfortunately, the ocean is vast. Perpetrators are out to sea for months or even years at a time.

Thailand is the third most profitable fish exporter behind Norway and China.

Kevin Bales, president of the Washington-based aid group Free the Slaves and author of the upcoming book, “Blood and Earth,” described Thailand's human trafficking problem more starkly:

"When you thaw shrimp to put on your barbecue, it’s likely that the last person who handled that shrimp was a slave.”

Learn more about the endangered oceans in an interactive graphic.

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad.