Australian and Papua New Guinea authorities this week launched a joint operation to hunt down vessels in the Torres Strait suspected of human trafficking and exploiting slave labour.
The operation follows the rescue of indentured crew from the Honduran flagged Blissful Reefer in Papua New Guinea waters last week. The reefer is believed to be central to a wider human trafficking ring.
PNG authorities impounded the vessel just north of Australian waters in the Torres Strait after a tip-off from Australian authorities. The crews, from Myanmar and Cambodia, have been taken to the PNG capital Port Moresby for processing, while the search continues for another 33 Thai fishing trawlers.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection confirmed Australian Border Force (ABF) patrols were maintaining a strong presence in the Torres Strait “to monitor, deter and respond to any illegal activity”.
ABF shared information with PNG authorities about maritime activity in the Torres Strait, he told IHS Maritime. However for operational security reasons he would not disclose its locations.
Blissful Reefers manager Golden Arrow Marine of Bangkok could not be contacted by phone or email. The Thai owner/operator Chainavee Coldstorage when invited to comment did not get back to IHS Maritime.
Slavery and human trafficking on the high seas have made world headlines in recent months.
A larger fleet of fishing boats with an estimated 1,000 indentured crew has also been identified on the Indonesian island of Ambon.
Speaking from Jakarta, Asia Pacific chair of the International Transport Workers’ Federation Hanafi Rustandi said the Burmese and Thai crew in Benjina and Tual in Malacca were unable to return home because they were without passports.
“The Burmese Embassy does not want to help their countrymen,” he told IHS Maritime. “In Ambon alone we have thousands of Burmese who are still to be processed by the United Nations and International Organisation for Migration.”
The latest incidents also come just after the 30 July release of a book funded by Seafarers’ Rights International and the International Transport Workers’ Federation entitled ‘Fishers and Plunderers: Theft, Slavery and Violence at Sea’. Published by Pluto Press in Australia, it not only exposes widespread exploitation, but highlights how fishing vessels are used for criminal activities, including pirate attacks on merchant shipping.
The ITF has called for the urgent need for a strengthened international legal and regulatory framework in the industry, with nations ratifying ILO Convention 188.