HRAS Interview No. 29: NGO Profile of Jas Uppal Founder Justice Upheld

NGO Profile: Justice Upheld

Jas Uppal started Justice Upheld after hearing of an Indian national on death row in Pakistan. His desperate family had no lawyer and no paperwork and were rapidly losing hope.

Since then, Jas has worked to free people held in unlawful detention from as young as 12 and as old as 76. Those freed are sometimes able to smuggle out a small piece of paper with names written on it – the names of others held in arbitrary detention, sometimes for decades.

How did you first get involved?

I’m a trained lawyer. I’m of Indian origin, although I live in Birmingham here in England. After visiting India as an adult, I fell in love with the country. At the time, I was working in the legal department of the police service in England. I was watching the news online about an Indian national who was due to be executed in Pakistan, but his execution has been stayed. I was horrified to find that he came to be convicted on very tenuous, dubious circumstances and evidence.

I managed to get hold of his sister. She was campaigning, and I was expecting her to tell me, “I’ve got a team of lawyers.” She had none, and no legal paperwork, but she had kept him alive for 18 years at that point by calling on government officials, Bollywood stars, anyone she could.

I informed the U.N., the U.K. Prime Minister and had an online petition. Sadly, the gentleman, Sarabjit Singh, was later murdered in his high security prison. His case was quite controversial over in Pakistan, and I still maintain that his murder was state orchestrated.

Did you ever have direct contact with Sarabjit?

He sent me a note saying, “Thank you for your help.” I was trying to get everyone to take notice and forward any information, but nobody would listen, not even the authorities. I’d hear things like, “Oh well, there’s 7,164 people on death row in Pakistan, we can’t help all of them.”

I was really taken back by that. You don’t say that, you know what I mean? I expected the same action to be taken as if he had been a British or American national. I expected the Indian government to be indignant, to demand access and to ask for court papers. Unfortunately, that just didn’t happen.

When he was murdered, then people were interested. The Pakistani authorities announced that they were going to hold an inquiry into his murder. I was invited to Pakistan to attend the inquiry. I made submissions via e-mail instead. Over four years on, the Pakistani authorities have yet to schedule the inquiry.

Looking back, a lot more could have been done, and should have been done, unfortunately. Being born and raised in this country, it was surreal, and you realize that you’re blind to the rest of the world. You realize just how fortunate you are.

You now dedicate much of your time to the charity. How did your efforts for Sarabjit lead you forward?

As a result of media attention from his case, I started getting loads of people contacting me with family members in similar situations – brothers, fathers, uncles – missing for years or even decades. I was shocked.

I started off by getting all the information, presenting it and making sure it got released, trying to generate a response from the Indian authorities: asking, “What are you doing? What have you done?”

This resulted in a lot of people of being released including a 76 year old man who was in prison for 36 years: Surjit Singh was finally released after 36 years in Kot Lakphat Prison in Pakistan following a dubious conviction in 1976 for spying. He was denied access to legal advice and representation and therefore did not have a fair trial. He was sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life in imprisonment. In Pakistan, a life sentence is equivalent to 25 years in prison. This means that Mr Singh’s sentence should have been completed in 2004.

In another case, a Pakistani reporter, Zeenat Shehzadi, was abducted in 2015.

Zeenat was reporting on the case of missing Indian national, Hamid Nehal Ansari who who persuaded by his Facebook friends in Pakistan to travel to Afghanistan and then enter Pakistan -without valid travelling documents.

It transpires that Hamid had developed an online friendship with a young lady. He was persuaded to rescue her from a forced marriage, but this appears to have been a ploy – he was reported to the police by his contacts who handed him in turn to the Pakistani intelligence services.

I was instructed by Professor Fauzia Ansari, Hamid’s mother. Pakistan proceeded to court martial Hamid, even although he is a civilian, and thereafter convicted him of espionage and sentenced him to 3.5 years. This was despite the fact that he had already been detained without charge for over 3.5 years.

Despite my advice not to involve Zeenat, since she would be placed at risk, Mrs Ansari connected with Zeenat via Facebook and asked her report on Hamid’s case, which she did. Zeenat has not been since her abduction, and the police are no longer investigating. I have reported her disappearance to a number of organisations including journalist’s organisations, however, they do not appear to be interested.

Does your work involve people in detention elsewhere in the world?

Yes, I am working in the Middle East too. Sukhdev Singh from Punjab who went to work in Oman on a work visa in May 2010. He was employed to work at a prison on Masirah Island in Oman. While there he was approached by a man who recognized him as a Punjabi. The man, about 70 years old, was Sepoy Jaspal Singh of the Punjab Regiment during the 1971 Indian-Pakistani war. He and four others were captured by the Pakistani Army in 1971. Singh said there were two other prisoners of war at the prison.

It appears that Pakistan may have moved the Indian prisoners of war to different prisons – outside Pakistan jurisdiction and presumably with the agreement of Oman. 40 years on, both the Indian Government and the international community, have failed investigate the matter. However, the Indian government is coming under increasing pressure to lobby Pakistan for the release of over 50 such prisoners of war held since the 1971 conflict.

I’m also currently helping around 50 ladies that are stuck in Oman, definite cases of slavery, and I’ve had cases of both women and men. Their passports are confiscated, and they even refer to their so-called employers as their owners. I have had to tell them: he is not your owner, she is not your owner. You’re a free person. And I find that extremely concerning.

It’s not just Indians. It’s Filipinos, Malaysians, and quite a few female domestic workers from Sri Lanka who end up being prostituted. I have helped the ones that come to my attention by reporting to the authorities, making a big fuss and getting on to the missions of the various countries.

Why do these people get involved in schemes that lead to slavery?

There’s a sort of acceptance, because a lot of them are trying to support their families. They see the chance for work overseas as their way out. I think it’s extremely important that this is stated, because it explains why people are running out of their country for better countries, the western countries or the so-called developed countries. Why the mass exodus? The answer is, it’s lack of respect, process, procedures, in their own country. And slowness in addressing the problems that they have in those countries.

For example, quite naively, when people went missing and their relatives contacted me, I would say to them, “You’ve got to begin by reporting it to the police.” They made it sound so difficult, and I couldn’t understand this until I experienced it. There are some very corrupt regimes – you have to bribe to even be able to register police complaints. Even then, action is not guaranteed.

How can slavery be so accepted by authorities?

It is a reflection of the Kafala System. “Kafala” is an Arabic word which means “sponsorship.” Kafala operates in the Gulf States, and it is unique to these Middle Eastern states, encouraging and facilitating forced labor.

The power is entirely in the hands of the employer known as the kafeel. The kafeel can dictate the conditions and terms of work, including the accommodation of the work migrant.

There are many cases where the kafeel has, unbeknownst to the work migrant, failed to renew their work visas which has resulted in the migrant being forced to work without being paid for months. They are too frightened to leave the kafeel to report the matter to the police, since the police will arrest and jail them. This often means months and even years of imprisonment.

The migrant worker is prohibited from changing jobs, resigning or leaving the country. If a migrant worker leaves his employment, the kafeel has the unilateral power to cancel the migrant worker’s right to remain in the country which will render the migrant worker an illegal immigrant and most likely will result in their arrest and subsequent deportation.

The system is archaic, medieval, brutal and is in absolute contradiction of international labor laws and conventions.

Have you helped seafarers?

Indian fishermen sometimes end up in Pakistani territory inadvertently. In one case, a fisherman aged 12 was released at the age of 36. He handed me a note, I’ve got the original, and it lists a number of Indian nationals detained in the Pakistani prison. I referred it to the U.N. Some of those named on the list have been released but not all of them. The author has not included his name; he has been accused of espionage. I am concerned about making it public, since in the last few years, a number of Indian prisoners have died in mysterious circumstances whilst in Pakistani custody.

In another case, four Indian nationals were contracted to work on the cargo ship Janan, owned by an Iranian national. The Janan arrived at a Kuwaiti port on May 13, 2013 where the four men and the Captain were arrested for the alleged illegal importation of contraband diesel. The Captain, Masood Khalif, had maintained that the diesel was fuel surplus reserve stock to power the vessel.

Three of the Indians remain in detention, one is confined to house arrest, while the Iranian Captain remained at liberty until May 2015 when he managed to leave Kuwait without having to answer the charges laid against him.

Despite being subject to legal proceedings, the Indian nationals have not been informed of the charges against them or served with copies of the charge sheets or with copies of the pleadings. The Irainian captain attended all court hearings and was provided with legal representation by the Iranian shipowners whilst the Indian nationals were unrepresented and denied the opportunity to appear before the court to learn of the case against them and present their defense.

The seafarers are being pressured by Kuwaiti officials as well as members of the public to convert from their faith to the Muslim faith. Some of these people have shown willingness to help them on the condition that they convert.

The men genuinely fear now that the captain has fled (presumably to Iran) that court proceedings will be directed against them. The Indian Mission in Kuwait has failed to provide the men with consular support and legal advice since their arrest in May 2013. Our work on this case continues.

Thank-you Jas.

Justice Upheld

Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:





HRAS Interview No. 28: NGO Confronts Abortion Rights at Sea

Last year’s Zika virus outbreak saw a dramatic increase in demand for safe abortions in Latin-American countries.

The virus can cause foetal brain developmental problems, and data from Women on Web, an NGO that provides access to safe abortions in countries where they are not universally available, was used to verify the jump in what activists and doctors had been reporting as an acute need for abortion services. The World Health Organization predicts that the Zika virus will affect four million people globally in 2017, but the associated risks are just one of many reasons why a woman may seek an abortion.

Dr Rebecca Gomperts

Women on Web is an extension of the NGO Women on Waves. Both NGOs were founded by Dr Rebecca Gomperts with the aim of bringing legal abortions and reproductive health services to women in countries with restrictive abortion laws.

Sailing in international waters gives Women on Waves the freedom to conduct abortions legally, so long as the vessel flies the flag of a country where abortion is legal. The NGO has sailed vessels to Ireland, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and, most recently, Guatemala. In this South American country, abortion is only legal if the woman’s life is at risk. However, around 65,000 abortions are performed there illegally each year.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Dr. Gomperts about women’s rights and the challenges the NGOs face.

How many abortions are performed around the world?

Dr Rebecca Gomperts talking to media in Spain

There are 43 million abortions taking place every year throughout the world. In the Netherlands and the U.S., one out of five (Netherlands) or one out of three (U.S.) women will have an abortion once or twice in their lifetime.

The Netherlands has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, because there is good sexual education and contraception is widely available.

The lowest abortion rate in the world is eight per thousand per year in women of child bearing age. That’s translates to a rate of one in five women having an abortion in their lifetime. It is the minimum rate that can be achieved, because contraceptives fail, and that is the most common grounds for having an abortion in the Netherlands. Women used contraceptives, but they didn’t work.

Are women of certain religious, cultural or social backgrounds most affected by lack of access to abortion services?

It doesn’t matter what religion or what race women are. What matters is their socio-economic background and whether or not they can afford to have safe abortions. That’s all: in any country, in any religion.

The problem occurs when there’s no safe abortion services available. This doesn’t prevent abortions from happening; it just creates social injustice, because the women in the country that have money, that are in higher social classes, that have access to doctors there, are able to get an abortion even though it is very expensive. In Brazil, for example, an illegal abortion with a doctor can cost at least $1,500 dollars.

Alternatively, women are traveling to have an abortion. We see this in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, abortion is illegal, so women have to travel to the U.K. An abortion for women that live in the U.K. is free, but it’s not for women who live in Northern Ireland. They need at least 2,000 Euros.

So, it’s the poor women, the women who don’t have access to information, who are actually effected by restrictive abortion laws. That is the heart of this issue. An anti-abortion law is not going to stop abortions, and women who have no means or that are poor will suffer from the consequences. They are the ones that will have unsafe abortions if there is no other alternative.

In the U.K., as well, there’s many women who can’t get to an abortion clinic. They might be in an abusive relationship, or they have kids at home, they can’t take time off work, they don’t have money for a babysitter, they are in rural areas or they have to travel a prohibitively long way to get to a clinic.

How can the situation be changed?

Only when abortion is totally decriminalized can all of women’s rights be respected. We are advocating for making the abortion pill available in pharmacies, like Viagra. Viagra is more dangerous to use then the medical abortion pill, much more dangerous, and it’s readily available in pharmacies.

Why is a medical abortion pill not available in pharmacies? Because it’s effecting women and not men. This is about equal rights.

Medical science should determine how a medicine is available and not criminal laws.

Women on Waves in Morocco

How does Women on Waves help women to have an abortion?

Our yacht can carry eight to 10 people, and we have many doctors that participate and a gynecologist who often goes along.

On board, we have a mobile ultrasound and medicines and all the emergency medicines that are needed.

We launch a hotline and announce the service so that women can call and make an appointment. The ship comes into the harbor, the women come aboard, a maximum of five per day, and then we sail out. There is counseling according to Dutch-European standards, and then in international waters, women will take the abortion pill if they still want to.

They then go ashore, and we keep in touch by telephone. They can do a follow up pregnancy test or come to the ship for an ultrasound if they wish.

The pill can be used safely until 10 weeks of pregnancy.

What are the human rights issues relating to the foetus?

Women are risking their health and their life to have a baby. Giving birth is one of the riskiest events in a woman’s life. In the Netherlands, 10,000 women die from giving birth each year. In other countries, the number is much higher.

Of course, most women want to have the pregnancy, and they want to continue it. But, if you look at the right to life and the right to health of the woman when it concerns the pregnancy, her risk is much greater if she continues it. So, her life has precedence over the foetus, because there is no viable foetus until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

If the foetus would be born at that time, it has some chance of survival significant enough for most people to say that this is when the rights of the foetus become important. Then, for example in the U.K. or Netherlands, one cannot choose to have an abortion any more.

Crew detained in Guatemala

Do you receive support or at least acceptance from maritime authorities in the countries you visit?

No. The port state authorities are quite difficult, although they are often being directed by the government. In Portugal, they stopped us from sailing in, and in Guatemala they didn’t let anyone near the ship or let the crew out. The ship was expelled from port for reasons of state security. So, women needing an abortion are an issue of state security?

We’ve had a couple of case where navies have intervened. That says something! Why would the military intervene with something that is only about women, her body, her rights, her health? I think that this shows we are actually talking about fundamental freedoms.

These government interventions are not physical violence, but I feel like they are a form of intimation which is very violent, especially since the crew and the ship hadn’t done anything.

How do you feel about criticism of what you are doing?

We get a lot of very grateful women. That’s what matters to us. That’s the only thing that is at stake. Any other actions and opinions don’t really matter. It’s the women that need help.

Women on Waves in Guatemala

Do you feel safe in international waters?

Yes, because the law of the flag state applies. The whole world functions like this, right? It’s part of what the biggest businesses do. We are doing the same as any company would do when they are going to countries, for example, because they have another banking system or other tax laws.

We use it for human rights issues and health issues for women, so it’s better.

But it’s not a legal vacuum. It’s just different regulations and different laws around the world that we are using to make sure women are safe. There is very clear agreement internationally that, if a ship is in international waters, the law of the ship’s flag applies. The ship is a piece of ground of that country.

It’s not like we have no law, rather we have to comply with the laws of another country.

Thank-you, Dr Gomperts.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


HRAS Interview No.26: Keeping Children Out of Piracy

HRAS Interview: Keeping Children Out of Piracy

A much needed first step has been taken to raise awareness of the horrific abuse of children in piracy.

The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative began academic research, in collaboration with Human Rights at Sea, the Dalhousie University Marine Piracy Project and the 100 Series Rules, in 2011. Following on from that, in 2016, Darin Reeves, Director of Training for the Dallaire Initiative, led their creation of Children Affected by Maritime Piracy: A Handbook for Maritime Security Sector Actors.

On behalf of the Dallaire Initiative, Darin explains how children are involved, how their recruitment is intertwined with terrorism and how adults confronting them can suffer the consequences.

What is the scale of children’s involvement in piracy?

Currently there is very little objective evidence, in large part due to a lack of reporting and research. It is much the same when it comes to estimating the number of child soldiers around the world.

However, based on evidence from pirates detained off the coast of Somalia, a large number of those directly engaged in piracy are under the age of 18. In fact, it is estimated that in 2014 up to 20 percent of all maritime pirates apprehended off the coast of East Africa were under the age of 18.

Within the Handbook, we quoted Rajat Pandit at The Times of India:

“In 2011, the Indian Navy announced that 25 of 61 recently arrested pirates were under the age of 15, with four of them estimated to be just 11 years old, while reports from the area consistently tell of an increased use of children to commit acts of piracy as older, established pirates remained ashore while recruiting and sending children out to sea to continue attacking ships and their crews.”

We also quoted the 6719th meeting of the U.N. Security Council, held on 22 February 2012, where it was reported:

“The United Nations envoy for children and armed conflict has reported a trend showing increased use of children recruited to seize ships for ransom, and that former child soldiers were noted to move from Islamist extremist groups to become pirates. This trend was underscored in a report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in 2012, citing strong evidence of cooperation between Al-Shabaab terrorists and pirates.”

How is terrorism intertwined with piracy?

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime noted strong evidence of a link between Al-Shabaab rebels and maritime pirates in a 2012 report to the U.N. Security Council. This symbiotic relationship is not one of mutual support, rather it reflects in part the desire by both parties to use a common “resource” – children – to take part in their activities.

The fact that maritime piracy in a particular area may ebb and flow is of no surprise; what surprised us through our research is the link between this activity and the resurgence of armed conflict ashore.

For example, following the armed entry by Kenya into Somalia in 2011 to attack Al-Shabaab strongholds, the rate of maritime piracy attacks – and the attendant use of children – decreased. Subsequent and recent attacks by African and American forces against Al-Shabaab weakened its position, and a rise in maritime piracy was noted.

It is therefore likely that as such armed groups ashore who use children as soldiers are reduced, the community of maritime pirates seizes the opportunity to recruit and use these very same children – in some cases further abusing those youths who have only just been disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated back to their families, communities and societies.

How is a “child” defined, especially in cultures where children often work at ages typically younger than Western cultures?

This is a question that defies universal acceptance. As a result, in writing the Handbook I adapted the Paris Principles and Guidelines definition of Child Soldiers to all “Child[ren] Associated with Maritime Piracy as:

“any person below 18 years of age who is or has been recruited or used by a maritime armed group or criminal organization in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as sailors, fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.”

Beyond actively participating in hijackings, a child may assist adult confederates in various auxiliary capacities. For example, Andrew Mwangura, director of the Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, has noted that young Somali girls are often hired by pirates to cook, clean and guard hostages.

In April 2011, Spiegel International published a story that aptly illustrates the reality of child recruitment, when it wrote on the recruitment of Abdiwali, a Somali child pirate who was apprehended during the liberation of the MV Taipan and subsequently put on trial in Germany.

Abdiwali said that he had to begin fending for himself at the age of 10. At 13, he worked as a fisherman and piloted a small motorboat, where he was paid $2-3 a day. He learned to drive a fishing boat. They would spend weeks at sea and when they returned, his wages were barely enough to survive for the next week.

One day, a man offered him $500 for a better job. It wasn’t until he was on board the dhow that they told him that a ship [the MV Taipan] was to be hijacked. Hunger and poverty, he said, had motivated him to commit this crime and he never asked himself whether he wanted to be a part of it. It had all seemed self-evident to him.

Why are children chosen over adults?

A number of experts in the world of private maritime security agree that children are frequently employed as interlocutors during ransom negotiations because they are widely perceived as being irrational and unpredictable. Somali pirates have discovered that insurance companies and hostages’ family members can be frightened into paying a higher ransom if a child acts as the pirates’ primary negotiator.

Adult pirates often claim not to know that it is illegal to employ children. They would like to increase the size of their piracy force so they can assume control over more piracy vessels or improve their ability to attack target vessels. Children are viewed as being obedient and easily manipulated and are therefore seen as posing less of a potential threat to piracy commanders.

Children are agile and effective at scaling small or light ladders and can get into tighter spaces than adults. Children are perceived as naive and brave, thus willing to take risks without contemplating the consequences. Children are considered cheap, expendable and easily found in large numbers.

Also, children require very limited training. Once they can handle a small boat, shoot and dismantle and clean a gun, they are ready to be employed on board piracy vessels.

Importantly, children pose a moral problem for mariners, as most professional sailors and maritime security sector actors will hesitate to shoot when faced with a child holding a gun.

Are some children particularly vulnerable?

There are many factors that can increase a child’s vulnerability to recruitment: being impoverishment; travelling unaccompanied; being an orphan; homelessness; living in an internally displaced persons or refugee camp; being female; being illiterate; having a relationship or friendship with someone who has joined a maritime piracy group; escaping from forced labour (e.g. fishing, mine, factory, field worker, etc.); belonging to a community that hosts a maritime piracy group; belonging to a persecuted ethnic or religious minority; being in conflict with the law; and being addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.

This is in no way an exhaustive list, and it is a cyclic thing. Children, raised and inculcated at an early age to the violence and depravity, enter a cycle of violence that only perpetuates conflict, both at sea and ashore.

What are the moral dilemmas for people involved in shipping or maritime security?

To borrow from a statement made by our founder General Roméo Dallaire, while speaking in the context of child soldiers: “Shock hits you as you realize this soldier is not a man or a professional – not your equal in age, strength, training, understanding. This soldier is a child, in the tattered remnants of a military uniform, with dozens more children behind him.”

Aside from the physical threat that child maritime pirates may present mariners and maritime security sector actors, facing them can also cause psychological harm in a number of ways.

One of the most likely sources of psychological harm is employing deadly force against children. There is a duality inherent in this situation: they are both a child, someone who is vulnerable, impressionable, frequently irrational and deserving of the utmost protection; and at the same time, they are also potentially violent, unpredictable individuals who can threaten the sailor, and they may view themselves more as an adult than a child.

When facing a child pirate, the mariner or maritime security sector actor may have to choose between defending their own life, their shipmate’s, their ship and sparing the life of a child. Such decisions are never easy to make, especially when under the time pressures of a potentially deadly engagement.

This can lead to what is termed a “moral injury” – when one perpetrates an act against another person that breaks with one’s sense of morals. This could, for instance, occur if a mariner or maritime security sector actor shoots and kills a child pirate or, shocked by the situation, fails to react appropriately and others are harmed as a consequence.

The symptoms of moral injuries may include shame or guilt for the act, flashbacks to the act and difficulties sleeping or concentrating.

Psychological harm can also be caused by witnessing or being subjected to traumatic events, such as being threatened with death or having a colleague killed. These may result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other operational stress injuries, which also exhibits symptoms of flashbacks, concentration and sleep difficulties and hyper-arousal.

Even if symptoms do not lead to a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, traumatic events can also lead to depression, alcohol use, relationship problems aggression, or other mental health challenges.

How these types of operational stress may impact security sector actors facing child maritime pirates has not been specifically researched.


In order to better prepare mariners and maritime security sector actors for the moral and psychological dilemmas associated with engaging children associated with maritime piracy, improved effort must also be made to create a reporting system. Incident reports from sea should be effectively analyzed and the results fed back into the training cycle.

Finally, all mariners and maritime security sector actors who have faced children associated with maritime piracy should be offered quality post-incident counselling to help mitigate any ensuing negative psychological effects.

What do you hope to achieve with the Handbook and your involvement with the Dallaire Initiative?

Our goal, as with child soldiers, is to end their recruitment and use by proactively educating and training those who face this phenomenon most directly and most commonly. We aim to reduce the perceived advantage of using children in this role, and increase public awareness and abhorrence for such a practice.

If there are no advantages to using children, leaving only their disadvantages, such as being weaker, less resilient, easier to distract and less capable of advanced training, and leaving those responsible for their recruitment and use subject to increased legal sanction, then we will begin to stop their use all together.

What successes have you had so far?

We have succeeded in helping to raise awareness of children associated with maritime piracy and their special needs, which has in part seen the establishment of special processes for captured and detained child pirates. We have also succeeded in engaging civilian mariner organizations as well as state naval forces who are interested in training their personnel on how to better deal with children associated with maritime piracy.

How does the Handbook fit with the 100 Series Rules of Force?

Much like the Handbook, the 100 Series Rules of Force was the first of its kind to provide the international maritime community with a model set of rules to govern the use of force in self defence. While Rules of Engagement are a well-known military idea, setting out the circumstances for military, including naval forces to lawfully use force in order to achieve their mission, prior to the 100 Series no such guidance or benchmark was available within the civilian sphere.

With these rules however, private maritime security companies now have guidance that incorporates international law and internationally generally accepted legal recommendations regarding the use of force in situations where the concept of self defence is engaged.

When combined with the guidance found within the Handbook, which itself also seeks to proactively educate and train civilian mariners and marine security sector actors, members of the maritime industry are better equipped to deal with this phenomena.

How do you view Human Rights at Sea?

Human Rights at Sea is a cutting-edge organization helping to shine a light on the previously ignored, misunderstood or simply suppressed issue of human rights beyond borders – on the high seas. In many ways, mariners are more vulnerable than those who remain ashore, as once at sea it is only the “law of the flag” that will apply – including that state’s human rights legislation. Moreover, even the flag state human rights legislation is often scant protection, as there is frequently no investigative or enforcement mechanism on board a merchant vessel to protect the sailor.

Human Rights at Sea is therefore filling a much needed and valuable role, protecting sailors who are otherwise without protection and raising awareness of issues that have previously gone unreported, unacknowledged and unaddressed by the international community. It has been a great pleasure working with David Hammond and Human Rights at Sea, and this is a partnership that we look forward to maintaining for many years to come.

The issue of maritime piracy can be found wherever ships are at sea, and as one of the first crimes recognized under international law for enforcement and prosecution by individual states, it remains in a class of its own. Likewise the associated abuse of using children to engage in this criminal activity. By working collaboratively with Human Rights at Sea and other like-minded organizations, the Dallaire Initiative will continue to shine a light on this abuse and work towards the day when children used as maritime pirates is a thing of the past.

Thank-you Darin.

The Romeo Dallaire Initiative 


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


HRAS Interview No.25: Escaping the Tiger, Then Meeting the Crocodile

HRAS Interview: Escaping the Tiger, Then Meeting the Crocodile

Thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos cross the border into Thailand each year. They trade poverty at home for the possibility of relative prosperity abroad. A Thai proverb – escaping from the tiger, then meeting the crocodile – describes the fate of many.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Phil Robertson, on the ground in Thailand for Human Rights Watch, about the pattern of abuse for those forced into slavery in the fishing industry.

Migrant workers coming into Thailand face being debt-bonded in order to get work. What makes them vulnerable to this human rights abuse?

Sometimes they choose to go because they want to support family members back home. Sometimes there’s a sense of adventure. Sometimes it’s out of desperation.

The people coming from Myanmar are from rural families and are often very poor. They have little to no access to cash income. Brokers are offering pay packets that, if these people knew what the situation was in Thailand, they’d recognize as totally unrealistic, but they don’t.

Less than a year ago, we prepared a report about land seizures and human rights abuses in Karen state in Myanmar, which borders Thailand. What we found was land seizures by military groups and local officials, well-connected people. They are literally showing up with land ownership documents issued by local authorities and putting people off land that they have worked on as farmers for generations. When the farmers protest, they get arrested.

The farmers either end up working as day laborers for a pittance or living with relatives, with some of the family members being sent to Thailand to find work and send back money. We interviewed people, actually the children of those that had lost land. They were scratching out a living, barely, by recycling other people’s trash. There’s a lot of familial obligation to provide money to the parents, and so they hear an offer to go down to Bangkok where they’ll receive a much higher salary, and they see the positive aspects of it, they don’t necessarily see the risks.

These are the realities of the migrant universe in Thailand that the authorities are not really touching yet with the reforms that have been implemented so far.

How are workers debt-bonded?

Take for instance a worker on the Thai/Myanmar border working at a local construction site. The recruiter says, “Hey, you can do a lot better than that. Come to Bangkok, I can find you a job: pay you 7000 or 8000 Thai baht a month. You don’t need to pay me any money now, but down there, I’ll arrange the job for you, and I will recoup whatever my costs are for arranging that and moving you down. There’ll be a couple months of deductions, and you’ll be all set. You’ll get a job, and you’ll be in a much better place than you are now.”

And that construction worker says “Well, geez, that sounds really good. What do I need to do?”

How are they then brought across the border into Thailand?

Usually they start with a long walk. Crossing the border is fairly easy, but then the broker will take them one or two days traversing through the jungle to avoid border checkpoints. Then they get to a pre-arranged meeting place where they’re picked up by a truck, usually being driven by either a policeman or the relative of an official who won’t get stopped by police on the way to Bangkok. They are hidden in the back of the vehicle, sometimes packed in like sardines.

Usually there is a mix of people who are going. The truck stops in various different places and drops off workers at different workplaces. For those sent by brokers working for fishing fleets, they end up in a port. They’re poor. They get out of the truck, and they’re surrounded by toughs. They don’t know where they are, they don’t speak the Thai language, they have no documents. There’s really no other options. They just have to get on that boat.

We see that kind of deceptive recruitment connected to brokers, and the way they move people into this country, time and time and time again.

What is Human Rights Watch’s approach to combatting these human rights abuses?

Our focus at Human Rights Watch is pretty much always the same. We investigate. We expose the abuses that we have found after rigorous documentation. Then we work on a change strategy, an advocacy strategy based on our assessment of where the problems are and what needs to happen to solve them.

Sometimes we’ll make recommendations to governments; sometimes to private companies; sometimes to international organizations. It really depends on our assessment of the situation and who the rights abusers are and where the pressure points are to try to stop them.

What is Thailand doing about the problems?

The Thai authorities are doing very little to combat the pattern of debt bondage and foreign worker exploitation. They have decided that the manpower agencies and brokers that bring workers into the country should be regulated. That’s all well and good, but there’s an entire sort of subterranean way of coming into the country that the authorities are not even getting close to touching yet. That whole group of people, that whole network, operates on the “travel now, pay later” system. And far too often, the “pay later” part of that equation involves persons held in what amounts to slavery.

What needs to be done?

The first problem is that there’s no good avenue for the migrant workers to effectively complain about what’s happening to them to officials that is disconnected from those who are taking advantage of them. The situation really calls for an ombudsman with effective powers to investigate, operating with the resources and interpreters to go down to the ground, to really understand the kind of abuses that are taking place and take concrete action.

Our research has shown that when migrant workers are faced with employment problems and complain, whether they go to the local ministry of labor office or their employer, they face immediate retaliation. That keeps them in a state of fear. Facing a difficult situation, facing human rights abuses, they do what any ordinary person with little power would do. They try to escape, to run away. The last thing they want to do is complain.

Ultimately we need to delink migrant worker registration and status from employers. Migrant workers should receive, let’s say, registration directly with the Thai government for four years. They can then take their registration ID card and work wherever they want for as long as they want, and if they don’t like it at that workplace, then they can resign and leave the next day like any other person can, and go find another job.

Do labour source nations, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, have any control over the situation?

What we see in Myanmar, and it’s the same in many different countries around the world, is a lot of corruption in the recruitment process. The manpower companies are being run to earn maximum profit for their owners through very high recruitment fees, and often times the people who own these businesses are relatives of senior officials or relatives of the police – the sort of governing riff-raff that take advantage of connections to take advantage of people trying to seek a better life.

The Ministry of Labour, Immigration, and Population in Myanmar has done a very poor job of effectively regulating recruitment. And it’s not just Myanmar. You can see the same thing in Cambodia. You can see the same thing in Vietnam. In Vietnam, many of these manpower agencies are connected directly to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs.

Bribes are paid at all levels in these labour recruitment operations. Ultimately, the cost of all those illicit payments ends up on the final bill of the worker who’s going overseas. In some cases, workers have paid thousands of dollars to take a job where they are going to be cheated and exploited.

Is anything happening at a regional level?

The region has done very little to protect the rights of migrant workers or look out for their better interests despite the fact that so many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are dependent on the remittances sent back by migrant workers for the success of their economies.

ASEAN needs an instrument to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers. Currently, there’s a fundamental regulatory failure when looking at the issue of protection of migrant workers and worker rights.

What role do you see the media playing?

I think that media exposés are absolutely critical to make progress on how can we protect the rights of workers in these countries. Those done by The New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press, the Guardian and others are excellent. They need to keep coming.

There needs to be more investigative journalism. That’s the real challenge, I think for countries like Australia and the U.S., Canada and Europe that are receiving imports of food and other products. They owe an obligation to the consumers of those products to say where the products are really coming from and under what conditions they’re being produced.

Human Rights Watch published a report in 2010: From the Tiger to the Crocodile Abuse of Migrant Workers in Thailand. Phil is now working on another report due to be published later this year focusing particularly on Thailand’s seafood industry. Human Rights at Sea looks forward to its publication. Thank-you, Phil.

Link to 2010 report: 


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


The HRAS Interview with Dr Pengfei Zhang – Chinese Seafarers: An Invisible Group

Chinese Seafarers: An Invisible Group

In recent years, China has emerged as a world leader in shipbuilding, shipowning and seafarer-supply. Why is it then that Chinese seafarers remain an invisible group as far as many of the nation’s legal protections are concerned?

pengfei-photoDr Pengfei Zhang, academic, lawyer and former master mariner completed his PhD thesis on the barriers Chinese seafarers face in achieving the same level of remuneration and rights as inscribed in some international standards. His subsequent book Seafarers’ Rights in China: Restructuring in Legislation and Practice under the MLC 2006 was published by Springer last year.

HRAS spoke to Pengfei about how the latest development of seafarers’ rights in China under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC).

How did you first get started in seafarer rights?

As a seafarer working on board international merchant ships for more than eight years, I had myself experienced unfair treatment quite often. This included low wages, long working hours, poor working and living conditions and exploitation by manning agencies.

In 2009, I started to teach maritime courses in Shanghai Maritime University. Before that, I worked as a maritime lawyer and helped many Chinese seafarers involved in maritime labour disputes. This helped me to better understand the problems and challenges of seafarers. In 2012, when my career in China was growing well, I made a decision to do my PhD in London and started my academic research on seafarers’ rights.

There were several reasons for that. The most important one was that I had seen the big picture, not just for China, but for the whole world. Shipping is very important, and seafarers are very important, but research on seafarers is relatively sparse, in particular in China. I have the right background, and I am the right person to do this, and I believe the most valuable and meaningful thing for me is to do research on this topic. I am sure that I can make unique contribution.


book-front-pageWhat was the aim of your research?

The overall objective of the research was to critically investigate the conditions of seafarers’ rights in China in legislation and practice; in particular, the restructuring process under the impact of the MLC. Since its entry into force in August 2013, significant changes have taken place in the international maritime industry, less so in China. The MLC entered into force in China in November 2016 after being ratified in 2015.

Although seafarer protection in China has improved significantly in the lead-up to this, there are still many serious problems. Seafarers are working at sea, out of the sight of most people on land. As a result, although Chinese seafarers have played an increasingly important role in the international maritime industry, they tend to be an invisible group compared with most workers on land.


What improvements have been made?

The major improvements resulting from the adoption of the MLC relate to seafarers’ pre-employment registration, physical examinations, training and recruitment services. The major reason for this appears to be that the Chinese maritime community has attached great importance to seafarers’ training, qualification and competency. These aspects are closely associated with the export of seafarers, the development of the Chinese maritime industry and increased tax revenue.


Employment contracts continue to be a problem. Why?

In practice, a number of problems exist that prevent Chinese seafarers from accessing their legal employment entitlements. First of all, many Chinese seafarers have trouble accessing employment opportunities, in particular those with lower ranks, such as ratings and junior officers.

According to the MLC, there should be a public recruitment system available for seafarers to ensure that they have access to an efficient and well-regulated recruitment service. China’s Employment Promotion Law also states that local governments shall establish public employment service institutions that provide labourers with free recruitment services.

But, despite the rapid growth in the economy, China has not yet established an effective public employment system, and in the maritime labour market, many recruitment and placement businesses are controlled by private manning agencies or ship management companies. Many Chinese seafarers have to pay large sums of money for employment opportunities, and they become targets for exploitation.


How are they exploited?

As in many other maritime nations, the nature of seafarers’ work may easily subject them to exploitation by unscrupulous shipowners, operators and manning agencies. For example, many seafarers do not have an employment contract. It is even the case that some ships maintain two separate sets of seafarer employment contracts, one real and one false, with the false one just for port state control (PSC) inspections.

Fieldwork I conducted revealed that even some major state-owned Chinese shipping companies were practising this double book-keeping aimed at evading PSC inspection.

Secondly, compared with seafarers in many countries, the wages of Chinese seafarers are still very low. Delayed or unpaid wages and substandard working and living conditions are still very common, in particular when the shipping market is poor.

As there is no relevant regulation of seafarers’ annual leave in China, many Chinese seafarers tend to have a longer annual contract and cannot be repatriated in a timely manner even when they have completed their agreed terms. Furthermore, when labour disputes arise, on many occasions seafarers cannot access effective and efficient legal assistance and remedies.

These may be common problems experienced by seafarers worldwide, but they have a bigger impact on Chinese seafarers.


What special issues do Chinese seafarers face?

Unlike shipping businesses which make a direct profit for society, seafarers appear to be less important than the ships on which they serve. China, despite its impressive economic performance in the last several decades, remains a developing country with relatively limited resources allocated for public service. While the Chinese government places overriding emphasis on economic development, the importance of seafarers has been placed second to fleet construction, which seems to attract greater attention.

Chinese seafarers have special profile, and they are also facing some unique problems and challenges, such as the Chinese maritime industry, Chinese maritime labour market, Chinese seafarers’ special role as temporary migrant workers, in their families and society, their difficulty in rejoining family life and society and their social status changes across time.

Furthermore, China has a very large population that includes workers from various trades and industries. Compared with builders, platelayers and miners, seafarers are only a small group, the total number of which is not sufficient to draw special attention.


Do labour unions have any impact on Chinese seafarers’ working conditions?

The CSCU is the national industrial union of Chinese seafarers and construction workers that is affiliated to the ACFTU. At an operational level, it has developed a clear strategy to support seafarers, in particular those employed in the foreign sector. In the past, the CSCU has made great effort in protecting and promoting seafarers rights and benefits, for example, in the adoption process of Seafarers’ Regulation, as explained in the Book.

However, the protection provided by the CSCU is far from satisfactory and cannot meet the expectation of Chinese seafarers. On many occasions, it appears to be quite weak and passive and has very limited influence at the international stage. Therefore, it is not able to provide effective and efficient assistance and protection for Chinese seafarers when they encounter difficulties at foreign ports.

In addition, with an increasing number of Chinese seafarers employed by foreign shipowners, the seafarers need the union to fight for their interests and benefits. However, dealing with international affairs requires special skills (including language skills) and many other competencies, which are lacking among many union officers.

There is a serious lack of seafarers’ participation in the process of “collective consultation”. The obviously unequal bargaining power between individual seafarers and maritime employers makes it indisputable that collective bargaining is an essential element of seafarers’ rights. However, although a collective contract has been drafted and proposed by trade union, it is actually absent in practice.


What changes would you like to see enacted to improve conditions for Chinese seafarers?

The major challenges to future improvement come from government authorities, the practices of the maritime industry as well as from Chinese seafarers themselves.

Since the adoption of MLC, China’s government has put considerable effort into complying with the Convention, and many changes have taken place. However, there are still significant gaps between Chinese seafarers’ existing rights and desired rights particularly regard to wages, working and living conditions, collective bargaining agreements and seafarers’ social security.

Adoption of the China’s Seafarers Act is of key importance to improve Chinese seafarers’ rights, as well as to the full implementation of the MLC. The Act has been discussed and debated for two decades, but not much progress has been made so far. The government is therefore advised to take more concrete and efficient measures to speed up the legislation process.

Furthermore, the government departments specialising in maritime affairs need to take on more responsibility with regard to seafarers’ rights, in particular flag state inspections.

A more independent, pragmatic and effective seafarers’ union should be established specially for Chinese seafarers.

It is crucial to promote best practice in the maritime industry by implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) and maintaining a sustainable maritime labour force. The implementation of CSR can attract high-quality talent, enhance a company’s image and eventually improve its marketing performance.

A skilled, loyal and well-motivated seafarer can reduce operating costs by increasing efficiency and safety and by protecting the employer’s investment in vessels and equipment. In contrast, stress, fatigue and complaints can lead to reduced performance. This is usually the reason why incidents that cause environmental damage, loss of life and loss of property occur.

It is therefore becoming more commonly accepted that voluntary CSR should be embedded into maritime business. Respecting seafarers’ rights has become a strategy with the reward of more profit than is produced by ignoring such responsibilities


Can Chinese seafarers take action to defend and expand their rights?

According to Chinese law Chinese workers do have rights to defend and expand their rights. However, due to the special characteristics of seafaring labour, the same as in any other countries, seafarers in China may find it is difficult to realize their rights on many occasions. For example, seafarers in China are entitled to participate in the process of Chinese labour law-making. However, in practice, it is very difficult for them to deliver their views and be involved in decision-making. This is especially because of the lack of a strong and effective seafarers’ trade union in China.

The issue is particularly important to seafarers, because their unique employment conditions are not familiar to most law-makers. Compared with the employment conditions of construction workers and miners, which have been addressed to some extent in several major labour laws, seafarers’ in-employment conditions have never attracted much concern in Chinese labour law-making.

Chinese seafarers should be more pro-active, to the extent that this is possible in domestic Chinese affairs, and participate more effectively and effectively in the legislative process in China. Under the impact of the MLC, China has started to promote tripartite negotiation platforms, and seafarers are encouraged to take part in policy-making and collective bargaining activities. There are many opportunities for Chinese seafarers to become involved and to deliver their message more clearly and loudly.


What reaction has there been to the book?

The book has provoked significant reaction in many sectors, including academic institutions, shipowners, ship management sectors, manning agencies and in particular seafarers. After publishing, I posted information about the book through Chinese social media and the blog has been forwarded more than 10,000 times. I have received letters and messages asking about the book, and some Chinese seafarers continue to share with me about their experiences.


What are you working on next?

I am doing a research for the Seafarers’ Trust on seafarers’ port welfare in China; not just Chinese seafarers but seafarers of any nationality who visit China’ ports. Meanwhile, we are editing another book: The Chinese Seafarers: understanding the largest maritime workforce in the world which will be published by Springer in the second half of 2017.

Thank-you Pengfei. HRAS looks forward to hearing about your progress in the future.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


The HRAS Interview: Dr. Lynn Simpson – Being the Only Woman Onboard – Part 2/3

Being The Only Woman On Board [Part 2/3]

dr%20lynn%20simpsonThe first thing veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson did before boarding the livestock carriers that she worked on for the first time was to slip on a wedding ring. Even though she wasn’t married, it helped to deter unwanted attention from the men she encountered at sea and in port.

In the vast majority of cases, she found the men she worked with to be friendly, respectful, even protective. Then there was the time she woke suddenly in the night, no longer alone in her cabin because there was a man on top of her.

Lynn spoke to HRAS about the best and the worst of being the only woman on board.


What was it like as the only woman on board?

As a vet, I had to develop a way of dealing with unwanted attention if I found the crew were a little bit creepy about me being on board. Each time I joined a ship for the first time and the crew didn’t know me or stories of me hadn’t got across yet, I’d use a weird tactic. This sounds really callous but any animal that’s going to succumb to stress quickly usually collapsed by day one of the voyage or by day one of loading. So, if I knew that there was somebody shadowing me suspiciously throughout the decks and I wanted to get a message through them to the crew, I would find a sick animal that I knew was never going to make it anyway and I would put it on the ground. I’d cut its throat, because that’s what we often had to do at sea. I knew all the right arteries were severed, and I’d walk away.

I would make it look so nonchalant that I probably looked like the most heartless bitch on the planet. It looked like I’d gone to no more effort than flicking my hair behind my ears in the breeze, and I’d just walk off with the animal still thrashing on the ground. I knew it was unconscious – that’s just what they often do.

Very quickly the message would get through to everybody, and no one would stalk me again.

It sounds really awful but, that happened multiple times, usually only once per company or once per new ship. After that, I was usually left alone.


Usually, but not always?

It’s interesting, because people often relate rape to late at night and seedy situations or alcohol consumption, promiscuous dressing. It’s not like that at sea.

One day, I was walking through a ship that I felt very safe in. It was about six o’clock in the evening. It was still daylight, but we’d finished for the day and I was actually clean after the day’s work. I’d come from the officers’ mess and was walking down the corridor. It was a well-lit corridor, and one of the officer’s doors was open.

As I walked past, he came to the doorway. He was somebody I considered a friend. I said: “Hey, how’s it going?” and he reached out and grabbed me, pulled me into his cabin, shut the door and threw me on his bed. Before I knew it, he was on top of me. He pinned me down and was basically explaining – and this is what’s weird – when someone thinks they’re going to rape you, they tell you what they’re going to do. Idiots!

He had me pinned down, but he made the mistake of putting his tongue down my throat, so I bit it. He jumped off screaming at me that I was a slut, at which point, I just stepped out of the cabin and kept walking down the corridor going: “What the hell?”

I think of all those movies you see where kids walk past the proverbial white van and the door opens, the kid disappears inside, the door shuts and that’s it; the kid doesn’t get found again. That’s how quickly that happens; snatched from the corridor.


And the second time someone attempted to rape you?

I was fast sleep in my cabin. I always lock my cabin, but the next thing I know there’s somebody on top of me trying to rape me. It takes a second to sort of work out what’s happening, but I went from fright to fight.

I used to sleep with a dolphin torch next to me which is one of those heavy waterproof torches. I smacked him over the head with it.

Once I got over the fright part, I was so angry. It was ironic, because I was naked in the dark beating the hell out of a man. You would normally just end it, and get him out, but I was actually so, so angry that while I grabbed him and headed to the door, I didn’t just turf him out. I thought: “Hang on, I want another go at this.”

The little table in my cabin was bolted down, and it used to annoy me because I had bruises on my hips from where I’d walk into it all the time in heavy weather. It was a small ship, so we got thrown around a lot. And I thought “Hey, that really hurts; there’s a weapon,” so I smashed the guy into the table a few times until I was satisfied. Then I took him to the door, kicked him out and shut it.

I was told subsequently that the captain had actually given him the master key to my accommodation.


How did you protect yourself after that?

I used to booby-trap the door. I had to join that ship again a couple of years later, and I actually went to the hardware store first and bought some latches. I liquid-nailed the latch to the door, so that if somebody tried to open it from the outside, I would at least hear them.


Why didn’t you report the rape attempts?

I didn’t report them because there were so few women in the trade full stop, let alone sailing.  I was the only one sailing at that time and, to the best of my knowledge, there’s only ever been one woman at a time sailing in the live export trade.

I didn’t report it because I thought: “I’ve got a good reputation at sea”. I think what I’m doing is worthwhile. You can’t sugar-coat it – it’s depressing and it’s hard work, but I believe that my personality type and my veterinary skills mean that I was actually a really pragmatic and positive influence on the ships. I honestly believe I was making a positive difference, even if that difference was to euthanize something quickly; to make the decision that an animal needs to be put out of its misery and do it, because other people would just let them linger and die then throw them overboard afterwards.  I’ve got the gumption to make that decision quickly and get the job done.

So I didn’t want to lose that position on the ship, and I didn’t want to make it more difficult for any woman coming behind me to get a job. I didn’t want companies thinking having a woman on board was a nightmare.

This issue was brought up in a conversation with some friends at a Soldier On meeting – the charity that I go to which helps me with my PTSD. There was a navy woman sitting with me, and a couple of the guys asked that very question: “Why didn’t you report it?”

She and I, at the exact time, and even though she didn’t know my situation, she’d never been on my ships, I’d never been on hers, – we both just looked at this guy and said: “Oh yeah, and then you’ll lose your job.”

With live export, because we’re just contracted voyage by voyage, it’s not like your contract gets shortened. You just don’t get a phone call again.


What about other forms of sexual harassment?

Another time, a captain had been sexually harassing me. Every time I went to the bridge to file my daily report, he would come up to me and say filthy, ridiculous things: “Oh, I had a dream last night, and in my dream you did this, this and this.” I was pretty forthright, and I’d just go “Mate, I don’t wanna hear about your dreams. It’s never gonna happen. Let’s keep this a professional relationship, we’ll get our job done, and this is how the rest of the voyage is gonna proceed, okay?”

It went on and on: “Oh in my dreams you blah, blah, blah” This guy just pushed it, and one day I was halfway through writing a report and I just screwed it up, threw it in his face and said “Fuck off! I’m never coming to your bridge again.” This put the other bridge officers in a difficult position. They pretended not to hear and kept their heads down, charts had never been so interesting apparently.

I didn’t return, and I thought “This will get the message through,” because the Australian Department of Agriculture will realise that they’ve not got daily reports from me. They’ll want to know why, and I’ll have to go to the bridge and answer the phone and say: “Because I’m being sexually harassed.” They’ll step in and do something to help me, because I’m there as their representative. No, they didn’t even notice, and we were only about half way through our voyage.


That wasn’t the end of the story with this captain either, was it?

I hadn’t complained, but when I joined that same ship year’s later, it was the same captain, and he started trying some shenanigans again. I told him: “This time I have a letter sitting at home, and I’ve got a friend that’s prepared to send it to the company,” and it’s a highly respected European company. I said: “I’m pretty sure that they think equality in the workplace is actually a reasonable thing to expect, and that your behaviour is not reasonable. If you carry on, I’ll be making a complaint.”

He carried on. I sent off a letter when I got home to the CEO of the shipping company. To their absolute credit, I got an email back almost immediately apologising. I explained to them that it had happened before, and I didn’t complain because I didn’t want you to think that I was some kind of princess who was out at sea and out of her depth. However, I think it’s really important for any woman coming behind me. I can take care of myself; that’s fine, but someone behind me might not be able to, and I think it’s really important that you know the calibre of this captain.

My understanding is the guy probably lost his job, but I’m not sure.


Were these isolated incidents?

Oh yeah. Apart from that, you would just get the odd person, usually like a lovesick puppy sort of following you around, some young bloke, and you’d have to say: “Go away! Go and phone your girlfriend or something”. But usually they were really lovely, and most of the time, once they get to know you and because, I guess, as a vet I carried a gun and a knife – they were very respectful and, in fact, very protective, and I’m still friends with some of them to this day.  Working in the same conditions and never asking them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself helped a lot. I respected my seafarer colleagues, and it was generally reciprocated.

It’s like you’ve got this shipping family, so when you’ve got a dysfunctional land family like I have, to have this weird shipping family that you meet and leave at the top of a gangway is something beautiful.

Thank-you Lynn.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.


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Part 3: ‘Sailing War Zones and Cultural Conflicts’ Coming Soon – follow us on Twitter @hratsea

The HRAS Interview: Bruce Reid, CEO of the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF)

Bruce-ReidUnifying the World’s Maritime Rescue Effort

Nearly 400,000 people drown every year, and we all need to be doing more, says Bruce Reid, CEO of the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF).

The IMRF is a charity, and member organisations share their search and rescue ideas, technologies and experiences and cooperate with one another to achieve their common humanitarian aim: preventing loss of life in the world’s waters.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Bruce about the charity’s role in helping to alleviate the high number of migrant drowning deaths and the need for a global approach to search and rescue (SAR).


HRAS: How is the IMRF involved in the migrant crisis in Europe?

IMRF LogoThe IMRF has coordinated the support provided by our European members helping with the migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea. Members provided boats, training, equipment and other support to local members of the Hellenic Rescue Team who are in turn saving thousands of lives.

Our help has included the provision of rescue boats by the Dutch NGO KNRM. The Swedish NGO SSRS, German NGO DGzRS and the UK and Ireland NGO RNLI have also provided boats, training and support. The Norwegian volunteer rescue service RS has provided a rescue cruiser and crew to the Frontex operation and has also secured funds to support the Hellenic Rescue Team.

As a result, there are now more trained crew and boats available on Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Kos. Our members’ support for Hellenic Rescue Team has saved lives and given the local rescue services a much needed boost.

It has been a truly international effort, and its legacy will be a well-trained and resourced volunteer maritime SAR response capability for the Hellenic Rescue Team, cooperating with the Hellenic Coast Guard to keep people safe on Greek waters.


HRAS: Why is building such capability important?

Building capability rather than reacting to tragedy should be the priority for maritime SAR.

To this end, we support the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s push to find solutions to the widening funding gap for SAR operations and his move to direct investment from external crisis intervention to providing local and national SAR response capability. This capability should include managing initial crisis response and then structuring plans to escalate efforts with international support.

The IMRF is also championing the completion of the IMO’s Global SAR plan. The plan aims to support governments and SAR organisations internationally to deliver an integrated sea rescue service wherever mariners might need assistance. It also aims to ensure that when people are in distress, SAR communications service providers and SAR authorities know where to send or relay distress alerts.

It is clear that not all humanitarian crises can be planned and managed for, but many have common characteristics, and one is the lack of sophistication in local and national SAR coordination. We need to see countries develop greater co-ordination capability.

We want to assist in building improved and fully coordinated SAR response capability in areas of high risk, thus reducing the global drowning death toll of migrants, notably in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. We also recognise that this is a long term aim as is the migrant rescue problem.


HRAS: How does IMRF view the interactions between the various SAR entities operating in the region?

Co-operation between the agencies and the receptiveness of the search and rescue teams operating in the Aegean are big positives. This type of cooperation needs to be built on. There needs to be further development of the coastal states coordination and response capability so they can actively manage SAR in their waters. More effective ways to stop the push need to be found so rescue is not needed.

One of our core activities is helping maritime SAR organisations understand how best to communicate and co-ordinate, and given the complexities of bringing together different parties with varying objectives, operations in the Aegean have been very successful. But, we need to get better, and that’s why we constantly engage in workshops to try and help develop best practice in communication and co-ordination where it falls short.

So, we need to bring the operational people together to share the lessons learned.


How do you view the role of merchant vessels in the migrant crisis?

The recovery of large numbers of people from the water is effectively a mass rescue operation. We cannot allow the merchant vessels to become the front line of SAR for these crises as was the case to start with in the Mediterranean. The responsibility for rescue sits firmly with the coastal states, and this fact needs to be reinforced.

When vessels of opportunity are used, it is imperative that they are provided with a safe port to off-load the people as quickly as possible. The Coordination Centres need to take responsibility for the people being rescued until they are safe ashore. The merchant vessel is not a place of safety.


HRAS: Has there been any members arrested for facilitating the entry of migrants into Europe?

Our member organisations have experience in maritime SAR and work with the authorities in their countries, so we’ve had no issues, but there was a massive response from willing volunteers with boats wanting to head out and save people not understanding the risks or appreciating the operating rules.

We have seen reports where NGOs, not accustomed to the rules relating to maritime rescue, were not in communication with the authorities and were therefore perceived as a risk. The risk of this happening is accentuated by the varying regulations that apply at sea – as highlighted in the Human Rights at Sea guidance Volunteer Maritime Rescuers: Awareness of Criminalisation. To help with this in the Aegean, we worked alongside the Hellenic Coast Guard to assist in coordinating the NGO response, including providing advice to some of the new maritime SAR NGOs.


HRAS: How important are human rights issues to your work?

As you know, we declared our full support for the Human Rights at Sea guidance supporting SAR operations, because it focuses strongly on European legislation and international search and rescue obligations.

The guidelines target volunteer maritime rescuers, but they are also equally applicable to NGOs, civil society organisations and even private shipmasters. There’s no doubt that the need for this resource has been highlighted by the recent events in the Mediterranean, where many NGOs have responded to the call to help bolster the local maritime SAR capability for rescuing people in distress. Many of these groups not only found themselves being confronted by the difficulty of interpreting local authorities’ rules and conventions but also having to contend with cross-border issues that they would not have encountered in their home territories.

With that in mind, the guidance provided in the Human Rights at Sea document will be an invaluable resource for current and future rescuers, helping them to minimise the risk of their humanitarian actions being in conflict with the laws and regulations that govern rescue at sea.

The only challenge SAR organisations should face in undertaking their maritime rescue operations is with the elements, not with authorities. With this in mind, it is important to keep the events in the Mediterranean in context. In many ways, this is not core maritime search and rescue. The people smugglers heading out of Libya “stage” the distress to make money from the migrants. So the rescue services know where they are and effectively go and try to collect them before the unsafe unseaworthy boat they have been sent out in sinks.

As long as the people come and end up in distress, they must be rescued.


HRAS: The migrant issue is now front page news. Has interest in the IMRF grown accordingly?

Interest in the IMRF’s global activities increased during 2015 as a result of the World Maritime Rescue Congress and the escalating migrant problem. A number of feature pieces were published about our work, and, apart from broadcast coverage of the Congress, most notably by Deutsche Welles, there was also extensive pick-up on stories from the event including the session on the migrant crisis, the Rescue Boat Guidelines and the Mass Rescue Operations library.

During the year there were stories across more than 50 different magazines and on-line publications resulting in more than 100 articles. These were principally in the maritime trade publications but also in some national newspapers and across a variety of social media.

The media that most consistently report on IMRF stories are The Maritime Executive, Ship Management International, All About Shipping, Seafarer Times and the Shipping Tribune.

Our challenge now is that the people drowning in the Mediterranean are no longer front page news, and yet they still come. In one day last June, the Italian Coast Guard was coordinating 41 rescues at one time all involving large numbers of people, all mass rescue operations. With up to 15,000 people per week still being rescued, there is not the attention and concern that was there 12 months ago. This has a negative impact on the NGO’s who are reliant on donations to do the work they are doing.

As I started saying at the beginning, we must do more.

Thank-you Bruce.



The HRAS Interview: Alexandra Bilak – Director Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

Migrants are the tip of the iceberg

Hundreds of thousands of people have put their life at risk at sea to reach European shores. Their bravery and despair has drawn wide media attention. In reality, though, they are the tip of the iceberg.

There were 40.8 million people displaced within national borders worldwide as a result of conflict and violence at the end of 2015 – the highest figure ever recorded and twice the number of refugees in the world.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Alexandra Bilak, political scientist and Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, to find out about the plight of these people.

Alexandra lived and worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya for 10 years and has worked extensively across Central, East and West Africa. She has directed a number of projects on forced migration in conflict and post-conflict contexts and has published extensively on these themes.


HRAS: Where are these 40.8 million internally displaced people?

Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan have featured in the list of the ten largest internally displaced populations every year since 2003.

In 2015, there were 27.8 million new displacements associated with conflict, violence and disasters in 127 countries. This is roughly equivalent to every man, woman and child in New York City, London, Paris and Cairo grabbing what they could carry and fleeing their homes in search of safety.

Yemen, Syria and Iraq accounted for over half of this total. Outside the Middle East, the countries with the highest numbers of people fleeing were Ukraine, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Colombia, Central African Republic and South Sudan.


HRAS: Away from the media spotlight and often outside the reach of humanitarian agencies, many of these people struggle to survive in subhuman conditions. What are conditions like?

The majority of internally displaced people live in overcrowded rented accommodation, schools and other public spaces, or tents and other forms of makeshift shelter. They face a wide range of protection needs and vulnerabilities including lack of shelter options, lack of safety and security, harassment, lack of livelihood options, gender-based violence, loss of documentation, food insecurity and limited access to healthcare, education, water and sanitation.

Internally displaced people have few livelihood options, and many are dependent on humanitarian assistance for survival.

Displacement has also forced many families to separate, and there are large numbers of unaccompanied minors.


HRAS: How does conflict and violence contribute to displacement?

There were 8.6 million new cases of displacement caused by conflict and violence in 2015, an average of 24,000 a day. This phenomenon has been on an upward trend since 2003. Some 4.8 million people were newly displaced in the Middle East alone, significantly more than in the rest of the world combined.

Displacement in the Middle East and north Africa has snowballed since the wave of social uprisings known as the Arab spring in late 2010 and the rise of the Islamic State. The region accounted for the highest number of people fleeing violence in 2015 by a wide margin.

Yemen, Syria and Iraq accounted for over half of the total. The political and security situation in Yemen deteriorated dramatically in 2015, and the ensuing humanitarian crisis shows few, if any, signs of abating. Violence displaced eight per cent of the country’s population, or 2.2 million people, during the year – more than in any other country in the world.


HRAS: Do you see the situation changing in the future?

When it comes to conflict-related displacement, obviously the root of this phenomenon is the lack of political solutions and political commitment to end conflict. Until that changes, it’s impossible to say whether there will be more conflicts in the future. There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything indicating a sign of reversing that trend.


HRAS: Violence arising from organized crime is also increasing globally. Where are the hot spots?

Organised criminal violence associated with drug trafficking and gang activity has reached epidemic proportions in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in recent years. As

a result, there were at least a million internally displaced people in the region as of the end of 2015, up from 848,000 at the end of 2014, many of them driven from cities suffering the highest homicide rates in the world and levels of violence comparable with a war zone.


HRAS: How does displacement associated with conflict and violence compare to that of natural disasters?

Disasters displaced around 19.2 million people across 113 countries in 2015, more than twice the number who fled conflict and violence. Over the past eight years, a total of 203.4 million, or an average of 25.4 million displacements have been recorded every year. As in previous years, south and east Asia dominated in terms of absolute figures, but no region of the world was unaffected.

India, China and Nepal had the highest numbers, with 3.7 million, 3.6 million and 2.6 million respectively. In India, the impact of two major flood and storm events were responsible for 81 percent of the displacement, forcing three million people to flee their homes.

Monsoon flooding associated with cyclone Komen, which struck neighbouring Bangladesh in late July, displaced 1.2 million, mostly in the northern and central states of West Bengal, Odisha, Manipur, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Three large-scale typhoons and a flood disaster together triggered 75 percent of the displacement in China. Three typhoons, Chan-Hom, Soudelor and Dujan, struck four eastern provinces between July and September, destroying homes, causing landslides and flooding and, between them, displacing more than 2.2 million people.


HRAS: Each year, a United Nations resolution calls on nations to provide data on displaced people. How is that working?

The extent to which that is achieved varies from context to context. Some countries just don’t have the capacity, and there are many gaps. First of all, we are still not capturing all situations of internal displacement.

We are only just starting now to look at people displaced by development projects across the world. As of today, there is still no global data on that phenomenon. The most frequently cited global estimate for people displaced by development projects is 15 million people a year since the mid-2000s, but this is just an estimate that doesn’t capture the full extent of the phenomenon

Monitoring on internally displaced people is very different from doing so for refugees, as internally displaced people are seldom registered and often difficult to identify. On top of this, probably the biggest challenge we face is accessing information over time. We tend to get a lot of information when people originally become displaced but then the information trails off as it’s difficult to obtain data on the processes that lead to the end of displacement and the number of people who have fled across international borders.


HRAS: Is the distinction between internal and cross-border flight helpful in a globalised world?

There is something to be said for and against distinguishing between internal and cross-border flight. Our mandate is about internal displacement, so displacement within the country’s borders. That is important because it sets the responsibilities in a very precise place – the national government.

These are people who are citizens in their own country and who are displaced within their own country, so the state is responsible for them and that means that they have a very specific set of rights and legal frameworks that apply.

That is very different from cross-border displacement. When someone becomes a refugee in another country, they fall under international humanitarian law.

That is important, whereas it is perhaps less important in the understanding the root causes of displacement and in looking at people’s vulnerabilities. Regardless of whether someone actually ends up crossing a border or not, the reasons for the initial displacement are pretty much the same. A Syrian refugee today in Europe originally fled for the same reasons as a Syrian internally displaced person who has remained within the borders.


HRAS: In 2016, for the first time, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre published its estimates and analysis of people internally displaced by conflict and disasters in a single report. The Global Report on Internal Displacement 2016 (GRID 2016) aimed to provide a more holistic picture of the phenomenon, regardless of cause. Why?

What we have seen over the years is that many situations of internal displacement are actually caused by multiple factors. There’s often an overlap between conflict and disasters and political and social factors. By producing a single report, we wanted to refocus on internal displacement itself rather than the drivers and to better demonstrate the overlaps in the future.


HRAS: What further insights do you hope to gain in the future?

We would like gain a better understanding of the tipping points: what is it that determines onward movement once you’ve become displaced the first time?

Many of the refugees that we are seeing today in Europe started off as internally displaced people. They fled their homes and they probably moved internally within the country before they ultimately decided to leave the country. Understanding what either facilitates or inhibits cross-border movement is crucial. What is it that determines that some people are able to leave whereas other people weren’t?

The crossing of the border is the symptom of a failure at the national level to provide adequate protection to these people, so it is better understanding those factors at play that is needed in order to prevent these movements in the future, or at least better manage them.

When it comes to disaster-related displacement, the majority of displacement we’ve recorded has been attributed to climate-related hazards like floods and storms. Obviously with the effects of climate change in the future that are going to exacerbate the variance in weather patterns, we can only expect that displacements will increase, particularly as vulnerability and exposure of people is not likely to decrease in the future.

Thank-you Alexandra.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.

The HRAS Interview: Giorgia Linardi – Mediterranean Migrants

Mediterranean Migrants: Becoming Part of the System

At sea, rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, 25-year-old Giorgia Linardi met a woman that reminder of her mother. Like her mother, the woman was a doctor, a specialist; their ages were similar. But, unlike her mother, this woman had lost her family, her home, had no phone to call her brother in Germany, and so was prostituting herself for $5 a time, as she tried to raise the money to buy herself a spot on a rubber boat to Europe.

HRAS spoke to Giorgia, a volunteer legal advisor with the rescue NGO, Sea-Watch, about the plight of the people on those boats and the razor-sharp dilemma of would-be rescuers.


You have been undertaking rescues with Sea-Watch for a year now, both in the central Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. What condition are the people in when you find them?

Leaving Turkey, people have to hide themselves in the woods. They are abused, persecuted, arrested, tortured and sometimes the women have to prostitute themselves in order to get on board. In Libya, they are detained for months in prison or prison-like houses where they eat on the floor and are beaten all the time.

There are major crimes related to people smuggling involved in some cases. I have seen cases of women travelling with a group of children of the same age. These women are offered cheaper rates to act on behalf of human traffickers working in the slave trade to Europe.

All these things mean that the physical and mental condition we find these people in can be horrible. They usually haven’t eaten for a long time. They are highly dehydrated if they have been at sea for some time, sometimes having drunk seawater.

This is particularly the case in the central Med, where the trip is longer than in the Aegean. In the central Med, Sea-Watch operates in a tract of sea that is 260 nautical miles wide, whereas in the Aegean the passage from Turkey to Greece is five nautical miles.

In the Aegean, they are generally in better condition, but winter is very cold there. In rubber boats, they are literally freezing. We’ve had cases of people needing limbs removed after their journey, because their hypothermia was too advanced for the doctors to save them. Treated promptly, amputation could have been avoided.

It seems like few Europeans empathize with these people. They feel the people making these journeys are so different from us, and this makes me angry. We cannot see ourselves in the same situation, of course, because it is so horrible. We are not used to it, and yet these people are seldom able to speak for themselves. When they do, the only thing they can do is make a desperate plea for help. This is a very dehumanizing situation to be in.


Initially, wooden boats were more commonly used in the central Med, but now rubber boats are commonly being used by traffickers in both regions. How does this impact rescue efforts?

Around 150 people can be crammed on a rubber boat which is made from material just a millimetre or two thick, and extremely unstable. The boats have very small engines that are incapable of propelling the weight of all the people crowded on. Usually the women and children are in the middle, and we cannot even see them, so we often don’t know how many people are actually on the boat. When you take them off, it’s like a magic trick. You can’t imagine where they are all coming from.

The situation is problematic during their journey, because they can’t move, and they risk suffocation. We witnessed one case where a child died in the water inside the boat. The search and rescue team brought him to shore, but it was too late.

The rubber boats usually carry less people than wooden boats, though, and there is still something you can hang on to if it sinks. Wooden boats sink quickly, and you have two or three hundred people falling into the water all at once.

How are relations between NGO rescuers and Coast Guard agencies?

Usually, in the central Med, the smugglers give each rubber boat a satellite phone so they can make a distress call. The boats are not meant to make it to Europe really, just out to where they can be picked up. There is a rescue coordination centre managed by the Coast Guard in Rome, and they receive the distress calls and then direct the rescue boats.

In the central Med, we work very well with the Coast Guard. The NGOs, such as MSF, MOAS, Sea-Watch and others, are the only other operators with a search and rescue mandate. There are a lot of naval ships in the area, and they will assist if needed, but it is not their sole mandate like it is the NGOs’.

In the Aegean, our relationship with the Coast Guard has always been a little bit more difficult. They do not trust the work of the NGOs and have prohibited us from patrolling, because they see us as a “pull factor” encouraging people to attempt the crossing. They have threatened to accuse us of facilitating illegal immigration even if we only assist boats once they cross the border between Turkey and Greece. So, it’s been a bit up and down, and there is not the centralized coordination that there is in the central Med.


What are the issues from a human rights perspective?

What happens to these people before they leave and as they make their journey is a violation of many basic human rights. These people have no choice other than taking the sea route and putting themselves in a very dangerous situation to enter Europe. It’s the only way they can flee, because we don’t allow legal passage, safe passage.

They are people who have no other place to go – most of them. Of course, there are different cases, but to have to put yourself in a situation of distress to initiate the obligation of rescue at sea, that is really perverse. It is a violation of the right to life because Europe is not providing an efficient and international search and rescue system despite years of having these crossings happen.

The situation is also difficult because we are working in a legal vacuum. There is a huge legal framework in terms of search and rescue, and for sure, each state has an obligation to rescue anyone found in distress at sea, no matter whether they are tourists, migrants or refugees. The problem is that there is no agreed definition of distress.

To the Greek Coast Guard, a rubber boat full of people who could potentially make it to shore is not a distress case, so they don’t need to assist. Actually, the Greek coast can be very treacherous, and we would assist boats in the Aegean to approach the rocky shoreline to ensure they had a safe passage. We have witnessed many incidents where the boat’s engine would stop or a tube deflate. It is important to be there on the spot, otherwise it’s too late


While on board you act as legal advisor for the Sea-Watch team. Why is this necessary?

My biggest job for the organization is to make sure that we stay on the safe side of the law and to train crews about the risks and responsibilities related to their engagement in rescue at sea. We are always being threatened with arrest for facilitating illegal immigration. The situation is sad, because instead of having support for humanitarian action at sea, we are facing a lot of issues. We have had to limit our actions in many cases, especially in the Aegean, because of this threat of being arrested.

At the same time, I understand that it is very easy for organizations like us to end up being part of the smuggling system, because we don’t have any boundaries. It would be very easy for us to establish contacts on the Turkish shore or the Libyan shore and get more information about the people who leave.

Then again, you never know who you are talking to. It might even be that you are actually becoming part of the smuggling system. We try to stay on the safe side, but it is tricky. There is a subtle different between helping people and becoming part of the business. We are on the edge.


There is resistance in some sections of European society to accepting migrants. Do you see this as justifiable?

At one shipwreck, I remember seeing a baby bottle full of milk, just floating there. That feels very wrong to me. I know it is a huge problem. Where are we going to put all the people that are coming? How are we going to integrate them? It is a very difficult task for Europe, but at the same time there is no choice.

As a free, democratic institution, we have to assist these people. It is an act of solidarity, of civilization. You cannot just shut the door to people that are fleeing what they are fleeing. As a European citizen, I do not accept that these people should be drowning literally before our eyes.

While being active in search and rescue is seen as being a “pull factor” that increases the rate of landing success, the reality is that these people are going to cross anyway.

My feeling is that this is just the start of the migration phenomenon, not the end. Most recently, we have started seeing people coming from Egypt – a trip that takes at least a week, so we are expecting the worst this summer.


What does the future hold for Sea-Watch?

 We will continue operating at least until the end of summer. Then we will be asking ourselves, what is the political sense of this, because, on one hand, it is important to have assets at sea to conduct rescues. On the other hand, our aim at the beginning was to be a provocation to the institutions of Europe. We are just European citizens, and we are rescuing people. We can do it, so you can do it – you have to do it!

What is happening, though, is that we are substituting ourselves for them. We have become part of a system that does not take responsibility. The question is, should we continue for ever, or at some point, should we stop and make that statement. That is a hard decision to make, because there are people in need of help.

 Thank-you Giorgia.

The HRAS Interview: Steve Trent, Co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF)

Steve Trent

Over fishing and Commonplace Violence in Thailand

“In all my experience, over two decades, I cannot think of situations that I’ve seen where extreme violence has been as commonplace as it is in Thailand,” says Steve Trent, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), talking about Thailand’s seafood industry.

It’s an industry that he says stands out globally for its environmental and human rights abuses, and one, therefore, that if turned around, could set a valuable example for positive change across a wide range of industries throughout the world.

Trent points out that one United Nations survey found that 59 percent of seafarers surveyed had witnessed the murder of a crew member.

“All too often, vulnerable people have been trafficked on to the vessels, and many of them are actually being used as slaves. There’s no intention of paying them and no intention of releasing them. They are slaves in every sense of the word.”

Myo Min Naing, 21, is one victim in thousands. He was promised a good job with overtime pay at a pineapple factory in Thailand before being trafficked into the country. He was transported with five others in a marked police car, driven by men in plain clothes, before being forced onto a fishing vessel.

He was compelled to work on the boat for ten months without pay before he managed to escape. He and his fellow crewmembers suffered abuse and violence at the hands of the boat’s captain, including one attack that left him partially deaf: “I made a mistake by opening the box where the fish are stored and he hit me from behind. It was so hard that I was knocked unconscious, and he smashed my face against the ice.”

HRAS spoke to Trent about the issues and what the U.K.-based charity is doing to help people like Naing.

HRAS: The collaborations that have made the widespread use of slave labour possible span Thai society. How can it have reached such a level?

When we started to examine it, the Thai fishing industry was completely out of control. There was no coherent fisheries management regime, and that led to an explosion in the number of boats and therefore the capacity in the industry. This in turn led to the fishing down of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand such that most of the high value species are gone.

The boats need to stay out longer, use more fuel and fish harder to catch a product that is diminishing all the time. This, therefore, means diminishing economic returns for the vessel operators. It is one of the primary motivations behind using bonded and slave labour.

The situation has reached the point where today, where if you took away that free or very cheap labour, many of those vessels that are operating quite simply wouldn’t be economic any more.

HRAS: How many slaves are there out on the boats?

From evidence obtained directly from our own investigations, we are sure its hundreds upon hundreds. By collective analysis, if you look at the United Nations survey, information from the Guardian, witness testimonies and other sources, you can see that it’s much larger numbers. There’s somewhere between 650,000 and 900,000 workers in the Thai seafood sector, and best estimates suggest that over 90 percent of them are migrant workers. You can say large numbers of those have been trafficked in, so you start to get an idea of the scale.

HRAS: EJF investigations have resulted in a number of reports and films that highlight the problems. What else have you been doing?

The recommendations we have made in the reports are not just a shopping list of ad-hoc nice to have ideas. They are finely tuned to the practical needs of Thailand, and we are always happy to provide precise detail and depth. So when we talk about vessel monitoring systems for example, I’ve had somebody in Bangkok sitting in the government command and control centre training people.

We are trying to deliver mechanisms that will enhance transparency and traceability. That’s the bedrock, because once you have that, then independent scrutiny can be applied and you have the ability to police change over time.

We have a fairly finely calibrated advocacy. We are not necessarily going out to huge numbers of individuals, but we try to talk to individuals and organizations that have specific points of influence within the sector. In Thailand, I’ve met personally with the deputy prime minister and other key ministers including the labour minister, foreign minister and agriculture ministry and the chief of the navy. That is the level at which we seek to engage and operate.

We work at comparable levels commercially in the Thai seafood industry’s major markets. The sustainable shrimp taskforce was originally set up at our request. We suggested the idea for the industry to get together and start addressing the issues that they had in their supply chain and the leverage they could bring by applying the pressure of their corporate dollars or their ability to change their sourcing and production methods.

HRAS: Thailand remains at the lowest level in the Trafficking in Persons reporting scheme, yet change is occurring slowly. What has been achieved to date?

We’ve now got a situation where the legal fundamentals are in place in Thailand to eradicate human trafficking. Over the last few years, Thailand has adopted a comprehensive range of fisheries and labour management laws.

Additionally, there’s been quite significant commercial pressure exerted through the diversion of investment that would arguably have gone to Thailand but has now gone to neighbouring states. That’s really significant, not because we want some sort of crude punitive punishment but because money talks. If people see money moving away, they realize that they have to act.

We have also seen a focus on reputation in Thailand. People often talk about Asian states and their concern for reputation, but in my experience, governments all over the world have a high regard for their reputation.

Big companies are also looking at their brand reputation and at protecting their market share, and they are asking: Do we really want to be associated with a product that is being produced by slaves? Almost universally the answer is “no”.

HRAS: EJF was founded in 2000. What prompted did you start it?

Protecting the environment is more than conservation. It is about equity, securing a fairer future and justice for those who need it most. When all the fish have been taken illegally, what happens to the coastal communities and all those people dependent on the resources?

When we set the organization up, I think it was true to say that there were very few organisations or even individuals that were explicitly linking environmental security and human rights, and we saw there was a very clear need.

At the time, there was a predominance of western organizations that would fly in to save the day so to speak but all too often they left nothing behind. There are amazing organisations out there, so I’m not being unduly critical. I’m just highlighting what we saw, and I think to achieve enduring change there is a very real need to localize the solutions to issues as well as bringing outside scrutiny and attention. One is not exclusive of the other.

HRAS: In many cases, you say, it has been hard to quantify success. What keeps you going?

The world has changed hugely over the past 15 years, and I’m a professional optimist. I believe in the ability to change and secure positive development. I’m also a passionate believer in the idea that it’s better to light a candle than to rage against the darkness.

I think small acts can add up to relatively grand change, so I’d much rather try and engage than sit back and bemoan the problems. Anybody who’s lived in the world of campaigning and advocacy in the human rights or environmental sectors knows how hard it is to secure change that is durable, but it is possible and it’s very motivating when you see it happen.

HRAS: There’s a shadow image to the successes and that is the simple question that you have to pose implicitly which is what would have happened had nobody tried anything?

In Europe, EJF is part of a collaboration with WWF, Oceana and the Pew Charitable Trusts tackling the E.U.’s illegal fishing problems. In the past, you have also collaborated with Greenpeace and Oxfam. What plans do you have for future collaborations?

We will maintain our investigations, and we are one of the few groups that conduct investigations at sea as well as on land. We’ll also maintain our high level advocacy at ministerial level and our delivery of appropriate solutions.

Because the organization is specifically set up such that it doesn’t need to be a brand in its own right, we didn’t want to tie our ability to operate to brand awareness, we are able to collaborate with organizations quite efficiently and effectively. I’m very keen on collaboration, because there’s too many people who think they have the answer and almost always, whilst you can play a part, you can’t deliver the whole, so working collectively and leveraging different assets and skills is a valuable thing.

EJF’s evidence of illegal fishing in West Africa has prompted arrests and million in fines levied against pirate fishing vessels. The charity has secured action from the U.S. Department of State towards halting human trafficking, and its investigative work into cotton in Uzbekistan led to one of the world’s most repressive governments signing U.N. conventions to end forced labour. EJF has also helped secure a global ban on a deadly pesticide. It has protected wildlife and wild places, from turtles in Liberia, mangrove forests in Brazil to wetlands in Cambodia.

HRAS looks forward to collaborating with EJF in the future. Thank-you, Steve.