Migrant fishermen hit by a double whammy. Regional politics and stifling kafala system

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Nov 26 2014


The writer is the Associate Editor of Migrant-Rights.org and Strategic Adviser to the Shelter Me Project.

After 10 weeks of detention and uncertainty across two countries, five Indian fishermen finally left Qatar on Wednesday, Nov 26. In a tiny room that houses eight, in Wakrah–a coastal town bordering Doha, the fishermen spoke to Migrant-Rights.org about the nightmare that began at sea and continued on land in Qatar. First caught in cross-border politics, and then in the shackles of the kafala system that immobilised them in Qatar.

The five fishermen the day before they left for India, after two months detention in Iran, and facing trouble with exit permits in Qatar.

The five fishermen the day before they left for India, after two months detention in Iran, and facing trouble with exit permits in Qatar.

On September 16, Sasikumar (42) along with his colleagues Arokiyam Antony (30), S. Anthonies (34), S. Antony (30), and Joseph Thadeuse (38) left the coast of Qatar on the fishing launcher. The vessel (Navras, registration number 3334) was traversing the waters of the Persian Gulf between Qatar and Iran.

Sasikumar said the seas were turbulent and the boat had to change course, accidentally crossing into Iranian territory, near the Kish Island. On September 22, Iranian coast guards apprehended the five men. They were held overnight, for over 24 hours, without food or water to drink, and also denied access to a washroom.

“We managed to get a drink of water from the garden hose. But we could not drink much as we were not allowed to go to the bathroom,” the fishermen recount. On the intervention of the Indian consul in Bander Abbas, the five were allowed to go back to their boat, but not leave the coast.

Migrant-Rights.org first spoke to the fishermen when they were living on the boat anchored off Kish Island, awaiting release. They spent two months on the 61-feet vessel.

At the time of the arrest, the men had in their possession only their seamen’s visa and fishing licence–their passports safely locked away in their rooms in Doha–and the last of their food rations on board.

What ensued was a seemingly endless wait with no clarity on how and when they’d be released.

The five fishermen had to live on a meagre allowance of around QR1000 that the Indian mission had given them, and on the charity of other fishermen.

“During the time we were detained, 14 other boats were caught too. Eight from Ajman, four from Saudi and two from Bahrain. But their sponsors sent their agent immediately with food and the fine amount, and those boats left quickly. Those other fishermen shared their food with us, because we had no means,” says Sasikumar, who has lived in Qatar for 20 years.

The Indian consul in Bandar Abbas and the embassy in Tehran contacted the sponsor and owner of the ship in Qatar, Yousuf Al Binali, who after six weeks paid the fine of QR30,000 to the Iranian officials, to release the shipping vessel and its crew. It took another two weeks for Iran to clear the papers.

They did not even look at the letter the embassy gave. They just threw it aside, saw our ID cards and asked to go get a signed paper from our sponsor. Our plea and explanation fell on deaf ears. How can we go back to the sponsor when he threatens us?

To Qatar and at the mercy of the kafeel

Finally on November 14, they were allowed to set out. On reaching Qatar, they were received by their sponsor and a severe reprimand for straying into Iranian territory. The fishermen, already traumatised, requested an exit permit to go back home to their families. Which is when the next obstacle presented itself.

“The sponsor told us to pay QR60,000 for the exit permit. The money he paid as fine and the loss of revenue in the two months we were detained. Where do we go for this money? He asked us to go back to sea and work. We refused. We just wanted to go back home,” Sasikumar, who by now was designated as the spokesman for the group.

On Sunday, the five went to the Indian embassy with their case and were given a standard letter (see image) to take to the Search and Follow up department of the Ministry of Interior, to turn themselves in.

“We would like to inform you that, **Name**, Indian national came to Doha for work as a fishermen details given below. However, he has reported to the Embassy that he is compelled to seek admission into your centre due to: Non availability of exit permit…”

The letter ends with request to deport the person.

“Before we could go there the sponsor came back and verbally abused us. Words we cannot repeat. He made us go to the police station with him and demanded that we turn in our passport to him by end of day. We were threatened every day.”

The very next day, with the embassy letter in hand, the men went to the SFD.

“They did not even allow us to queue up until we had an open ticket in hand.”

With no money for food or transport, Migrant Support Qatar (MSQ), a volunteer run operation raised the money for their tickets and sustenance. However, when the fishermen went back with the tickets and the letter from the embassy, they were turned away again.

“They did not even look at the letter the embassy gave. They just threw it aside, saw our ID cards and asked to go get a signed paper from our sponsor. Our plea and explanation fell on deaf ears. How can we go back to the sponsor when he threatens us?

“And of what value is the embassy’s letter? When our Lankan fishermen get caught in these situations, the embassy personally takes care of the letter and communication with the Ministry. They know a poor labourer like us will not be given any respect there. But the Indian embassy just prints out these letters as a matter of routine and leaves us to run around and get frustrated. There’s so little faith in their efficiency.”

Fortunately for the five fishermen, the sponsor, aware of their visit to the SFD, finally agreed to give an exit permit.

“He has only one fishing boat, and we are the only crew. The only way he can get visas for a new crew is by letting us go. But we know other fishermen, working for bigger fleets, who are trapped as even if they refuse to go out to sea, the sponsor can move his crew around,” the fishermen explained.

The roles of embassies of the countries where the fishermen are from needs to be better examined. The process and procedures that the missions take to assist their citizens are unclear, especially when the citizens stray into a third country.

Plight of seamen

The plight of these five fishermen is neither unique nor the worst-case scenario. Migrant-Rights.org spoke to several other fishermen on their work contracts.

In general, fishermen do not receive a salary. The crew keeps 50 percent of the proceeds from their catch, which they share amongst themselves, while 50 percent goes to the sponsor.

Often, if there’s maintenance to be done on the ship, that’s deducted first before the 50-50 split. The fishermen also pay half of the annual visa fee (which works out to QR350) and bear the expense of their medical treatment, if any. They have no insurance coverage either.

From what they earn, they will have to fend for their accommodation and food. For the tiny room shared by eight men, they have to pay anywhere between QR2000 and QR2500 in total.

“In an excellent month, we may make QR1000-1500 each. But those are rare occasions. What we make regularly is far less. We are also harassed by the sponsor if we don’t make a big enough catch, which is why, often we explore farther and farther from the coast and stray into another country,” Sasikumar says.

Fishermen detained for straying into foreign waters is a common enough occurrence. “If you are caught in UAE they will release the fishermen and detain the boat. In Iran it is more difficult,” the fishermen say.

Yet, they hope to come back to the region to work. “We can’t come to Qatar for two years, because of the ban. But we have families to run, we have no choice, so we will look at another country.”

Human Rights activist and founder of MSQ  Aakash Jayaprakash says the case of the five fishermen is indicative of wider issues affecting migrants in the Gulf. “While the sponsor did assist in repatriating the workers back to Qatar, he demanded that the workers repay him QR60,000. How feasible is it to expect fishermen to cover this amount? Fishermen earn very little in Qatar already. It is a series of unfortunate events, all of which negatively affect the migrants and their families. If provided with better navigation equipment and training, it is hard to imagine the fishermen would have voluntarily strayed into Iranian territory.

“Furthermore, as per Qatari law, fishermen are categorized as domestic workers which effectively excludes them from any legal protections enshrined in the labor law. They are solely dependent on the goodness of the Kafeel to assist them in times of distress, and unfortunately was not the case here.

“The roles of embassies of the countries where the fishermen are from needs to be better examined. The process and procedures that the missions take to assist their citizens are unclear, especially when the citizens stray into a third country. Of course, it must be acknowledged the sponsor paid the amount needed to repatriate the individuals from Iran.”

Sr. Valarmathi, a member of the Migrant Forum in Asia, has been lobbying on behalf of fishermen with the Indian government. She says, the fishermen are under great pressure to keep increasing their catch. “When they fish with in the territory they cannot get the quote the sponsor expects, which means severe harassment when they return.”

She reiterates what the fishermen told Migrant-Rights.org on the poor employment conditions. “There are fishermen without accommodation, and their boat is their room. Even in bad conditions or when they are ill, they have only the boat to live on. There is no social security in place in both the sending and receiving countries.”

Caught in political crossfire

Migrant fishermen from the subcontinent often find themselves in trouble in the region. In September this year, Karthikeyan Thangaraj, a 32-year-old fisherman from India on a Bahraini boat, died in collision with a Qatar coast guard vessel. While Indian news reports say the fisherman was shot dead, local reports held it was an accident.

In June last year, 19 Indian fishermen on four boats from Saudi were detained for six months by Iranian authorities.

This was attributed to the political tension between Saudi and Iran.

A couple of years ago, 32 Bahrain-based Indian fishermen were arrested and detained by Qatari officials, at the height of political tensions between the two Gulf nations.

In November 2012, 29 Qatar-based Indian fishermen were detained in Kish Island by Iranian authorities. On the very day, 30 Indian fishermen from UAE were also detained.

The India-based South Asian Fishermen Fraternity (SAFF) has repeatedly urged all the GCC countries to issue special identity cards to fishermen.

It emphasised that migrant fishermen do not have knowledge to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the Gulf and so, when they inadvertently breach maritime borders while fishing, they shouldn’t be treated as criminals.

In November 2010, 28 Indian fishermen from Saudi were sentenced to two years in jail by a Qatari court.

The detention and mistreatment of fishermen is highly underreported both within the region and and in their home countries.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East