“Human Rights Certified?”: Understanding the Dynamics of Migration

Photo: Jerome Michelet

This is the fifth and final post in a series on migration issues on land and at sea.

When we think of the negativities surrounding the fish we consume, we often think of heavy metal contamination, overfishing, or destructive bycatch. While these issues merit our attention, we also need to acknowledge that more needs to be done to recognize the problems endemic to the people who are catching, storing, and processing the fish. Efforts to expose and stymie exploitation in the fisheries sector are growing. The leading certification scheme, for example, is working toward introducing labor requirements for fisheries that apply for or want to maintain their certification.

In spite of that, this account highlights the brutality of this little-understood form of trafficking for labor exploitation:

“We were taken by force to work even we were sick. We were denied access to medication and treatment . . . We were given very little food and water. Most often we drink dirty water, so that some of us constantly suffer from severe stomach ache and diarrhea. We work 20 to 22 hours daily but were only allowed some two-hours night sleep . . . We were hit like animals every time we commit errors in our work.”

In the absence of proper data, the scale of this kind of abuse at sea is not fully understood. 

How do people end up in these conditions?

Individuals are often lured into exploitative, and opaque employment . Other times, employers change the contract after signing or put workers in a cycle of inescapable debt. Sometimes individuals are simply abducted. However it begins, the ordeal of forced labor in the fishing industry involves years of extreme isolation, medical neglect, malnutrition, and seemingly endless hours of dangerous work. Attempts to leave or change the conditions are frequently met with the seizure of necessary identifying documents, withholding of pay, and often, brutal violence.

What attention has made its way to the issue of forced labor in the fishing industry has focused primarily on Southeast Asia, but this is not merely a regional problem. The fishing industry is global in every aspect and the issue of forced labor in the sector is no different. One of the regions where forced labor has not been thoroughly explored, but where the conditions are rife for it to take hold, is Africa.

So far, there is only anecdotal evidence of forced labor on fishing vessels in African waters. One of the limited cases we do know of came through the discovery of several vessels engaged in illegal fishing in South African waters in 2013. The crew onboard, who were largely from East and Southeast Asia, were living in deplorable conditions; some had been held on the vessels without pay for up to five years. Crew on these vessels reported that there were several other vessels with the same owner operating in the area. They also reported that other fishermen in the group of vessels had died at sea, and two of the vessels had recently sunk.

Two characteristics that facilitate forced labor in the fisheries sector are prevalent in much of the African maritime domain.    

First, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in African waters is widespread. Those fishing operations which are already attempting to operate under the radar to avoid contact with maritime authorities are also more likely to be willing to use forced labor of one form or another.  

Second, there is a lack of maritime security and governance enforcement capacity. As a result, African waters go largely unpatrolled and unregulated, allowing those who exploit forced labor at sea to operate with relative impunity. This lack of enforcement, compounded by the inability of law enforcement agents and navies to identify IUU fishing and/or human trafficking at sea, provides an environment enabling forced labor in the fishing industry to go unchecked. It also means very little data are collected regarding the scope of the problem, leaving policy makers seeking to address it with a lack of insight into the issue.

What can be done about it? 

Given the complexity of the issue, a multi-pronged approach is necessary in order to combat forced labor at sea.

First, maritime domain awareness (MDA) is extremely important. MDA, broadly defined, is a general understanding of what is happening in a state’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. What vessels are in your waters? What are they doing? Are they transmitting their positions and following regulations? Are there patterns of maritime activity which appear suspicious? Many African states do not have the vessels, personnel, and information systems to answer these questions.

This leads to problems with sharing information effectively. Both East and West Africa have regional maritime information-sharing structures, but they have yet to be fully implemented. Further development of these institutions will significantly aid in detecting and halting this inherently transnational crime.

But in order to get there, a third component needs to be addressed: awareness and knowledge of maritime crimes such as IUU fishing and labor exploitation at sea. The Caught Red-Handed project, a joint effort of Secure Fisheries (a project of One Earth Future) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is a good example of how capacity-building activities in the Western Indian Ocean can be supported. Precisely because maritime law enforcement involves a unique set of skills (such as evidence collection) as well as familiarity working with civilian agencies, a sole reliance on naval assets will not be sufficient to address the complex issue of illegal fishing, particularly where it intersects with human trafficking at sea.

By enhancing regional maritime enforcement through capacity-building projects that address IUU fishing and human trafficking at sea, African states can enhance maritime domain awareness, understand the scope of forced labor in their waters, and end the plight of some of those trapped in brutal conditions at sea.


The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) present an ambitious opportunity to address global issues of poverty, violence, and environmental degradation. Recognizing the interrelated challenges posed by inequality, instability, and ecological threats, the SDGs provide 17 areas the international community has committed to addressing in order to foster greater global stability. Key to addressing many of these issues (such as peace and economic development) is tackling the many challenges posed when people feel compelled to leave their homes due to poverty or conflict, among other problems. Migration—both regular and irregular—takes many forms, such as climate- or conflict-induced displacement, economic migration, asylum-seeking, forced labor, smuggling, or human trafficking.

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