Two Indian fishermen in Bahrain have been missing for nearly a year now, leaving their young families in the dark. They vanished without a trace while out at sea, and the anxiety felt by their loved ones has only increased due to the lack of information on their whereabouts. Compounding their misery, the families are struggling to survive without their primary breadwinners.
On 17 October 2022 Sahaya Celso (37) and Antony George Vincent (33) departed Bahrain on dhow BH9102 for a routine two-day fishing trip. When the two failed to return, their employer, Tareq Almajed, reported them missing. The men, who are from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu (Kadiapattinam, Kanyakumari district), had been employed by Almajed for 15 years. The Bahraini Coastguard told Almajed on 22 October that their Qatari counterparts had reported seeing a Bahraini dhow on their radar alongside an Iranian boat in Bahrain waters.
Fishermen in Muharraq, a harbour area in the kingdom where the pair lived, are concerned about the men's situation. “We heard that some Indian fishermen in Iran had seen a boat capsized on their border, partly broken, and with one engine missing – apparently it had a Bahrain registration number, but we heard nothing more on that,” claimed an Indian fisherman who goes by the name Justin. “Everyone seems to have given up after ten months."
The missing fishermen’s families and Father John Churchill, the general secretary of the South Asian Fishermen Federation in India, have contacted various authorities to help locate the men. “We have written to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the Indian External Affairs Minister, the Indian Ambassador to Bahrain, and local authorities.”
Vincent and Celso both have two young children each. Subha, Celso’s wife, is distraught and unable to deal with the uncertainty of her husband’s fate. “Our world has come to a standstill and there is no one to rescue us.” The 28-year-old is now struggling to survive financially, on top of the psychological stress brought on by the disappearance of her husband.
“I was running to all possible sources – local officials, members of assembly and parliament, and through civil societies, sent letters to New Delhi and Bahrain, seeking help to find my husband. The thought is scary and nobody knows where he is. And now it's been 10 months, and we have literally come to a situation where I do not have food to feed my little girls, forget about their clothes or education. I am an orphan, and my husband's parents are both sick – one is bedridden. I am not sure what to do to take life forward, and at the same time, I am always worrying about my husband.”
Both women said they were unable to pay their home loans and rent. Vincent’s 32-year-old wife, Subi, had to move in with her elderly parents. “Nobody seems to care, or they are helpless, but we are stuck in this situation of uncertainty and poverty, and I am unable to look at my babies, who are most of the time starving. My 65-year-old father is now going to work to feed my children – I feel so lost.”
The plight of migrant fishermen
Fishermen toil at sea for lengthy periods of time, receiving meagre pay while working under difficult conditions. Though an employment contract is mandatory under Bahrain's labour law, one is often either not honoured or not provided at all. Fishermen are rarely paid regular salaries but instead given a percentage of their catch as remuneration. This amount is then shared amongst the crew, with the captain receiving the largest share. The bigger the catch, the more the remuneration, which pushes fishermen to take risks at sea such as crossing borders to access more fecund areas of the sea, or fishing during banned periods in breeding seasons. Both practices can lead to the impoundment of their vessels and their detention. If they are arrested in a foreign land, their release typically requires the intervention of their sponsor (owner of the vessel), the country in which they are employed, their home country, and the country in which they are being held – none of whom want to take responsibility for the plight of the crew.
In most cases, the shipping vessels are owned by and licenced to a Bahraini national. The captain is issued an identity card by the Bahraini Coastguard and builds his own crew. They are generally not provided with safety equipment, nor are they offered any kind of insurance or social protection.
In 2015, Bahrain rolled out hi-tech Automatic Identification System (AIS) devices to be installed on about 7,500 small fishing boats that are registered with the Coastguard as part of the country’s new security at sea initiative. Yet, records kept by organisations like the International Fishermen Development Trust (INFIDET), South Asian Fishermen Federation and the National Domestic Workers' Movement in India highlight many cases of fishermen’s deaths and missing, from across the region. Since 2014, at least three deaths of fishermen have been reported, according to INFIDET. Official reports claim the men were killed during armed robberies at sea, though scant details or evidence are provided. Thomas Glattus Soosai, 47, from Tamil Nadu, India, was allegedly shot dead by pirates on 21 May 2014, 10 nautical miles northwest of Bahrain's sea border in an area known as Alrkaa.
Siluvai Mathivalan, 48, also from Tamil Nadu, was allegedly shot dead in another attempted robbery near the Saudi-Iran sea border on 29 May 2015. Reportedly, Mathivalan and four others on a dhow unknowingly strayed into the Iranian territorial waters. Antony Arul Anish, 21, died in Qatar waters on 3 August 2015. He, too, was allegedly shot while fishing with fellow men on board a Qatari dhow. His body was recovered in Bahrain waters by Bahrain navy patrols after two days.
President of INFIDET Justin Antony noted that the fact that three fishermen had been killed by gunfire in the past two years “makes us think there is more to the story than what’s been made public.” In addition to these fatalities, INFIDET has also reported several missing fishermen, all of whom are from Tamil Nadu, India: Antony and Vijayan (2007) from Kanyakumari; Thomson Britto (2013) from the same town; Manikkam (2009) from Tirunelveli district; and Thresaiya Barnanthu (2001) from Tuticorin district.
Sister Josephine Valarmathi of the National Domestic Workers' Movement in India repeated her concerns about fishermen, primarily from the southern state of India, who migrates to the Gulf in an effort to make a living.
“Fishermen must be covered by a proper insurance system,” she said in a statement to Migrant-Rights.Org. “They should receive pre-departure training. Every boat should also have a device or system for tracking the vessel when the men are out at sea. The government should provide compensation to the grieving families in the event that a fisherman goes missing or dies.”
Sister Valarmathi also referred to the practice of some sponsors who hire men and then take money from them as informal insurance to support them in case of a mishap. “Some men claimed to have given the sponsor about three lakh Indian rupees (INR3,00,000) as insurance money. The sponsor demands a significant sum of money, but the fishermen receive no compensation for their efforts, even when they are in danger, like in cases of disappearance or fatalities. Families aren't helped either, so these kinds of practices ought to stop in this situation.”
In a similar vein, former Bahraini resident and rights campaigner Pada Lingam argued that Bahraini fishermen should be eligible for General Organisation of Social Insurance (GOSI) benefits. GOSI is the government-run organisation for social insurance and pension services for all people covered by the Civil Law (public sector) and Social Insurance Law (private sector).
“What we observe in the majority of situations is that sponsors or employers do not care about providing compensation to the families, and their employment ends as soon as the mortal remains, in the event of deaths, are sent. The cases of missing men are the worst. I'm not sure why employers aren't implementing it; perhaps the GOSI requirements are difficult.”
A social worker from Bahrain's Tamil community pointed out that no official contact has yet been made by any authority with of the missing men.
According to a former official from the Agriculture and Marine Resources Directorate marine licences, 96% of Bahrain’s fishermen were migrants in 2015.
Bahrain has not ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention (No 188) of 2007. The convention establishes binding standards that address the main issues concerning work on board fishing vessels, including: occupational safety, health, and medical care at sea and ashore, rest periods, written work agreements, as well as social security protection no less favourable than other workers.
Best practices in the sector, as highlighted by the 2015 ILO study ‘Fishers First – Good Practises to End Labour Exploitation at Sea', include law enforcement and multidisciplinary inspection systems, alongside regional and international initiatives addressing labour issues. A robust policy environment, political will, and collaboration between workers' and employers' organisations are crucial for effective action on the issues facing Bahrain’s migrant fishermen.