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.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: 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.