Hundreds of Vietnamese Fishermen Stranded in Indonesia Amid COVID-19 Restrictions

2020-12-15
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Hundreds of Vietnamese Fishermen Stranded in Indonesia Amid COVID-19 Restrictions Indonesian soldier stands guard near detained Vietnamese fishermen on board an Indonesian warship off Rian province, Dec. 5, 2014.
Antara Foto via Reuters

UPDATED at 2:25 P.M. ET on 2020-12-16

More than 200 Vietnamese arrested by Indonesia for illegal fishing in its waters have been stranded in a detention center for months, their representative told Radio Free Asia, a sister agency of Benar News, via emailed video clips.

Many of them are free to go home, but the Vietnamese embassy says the coronavirus pandemic is delaying their return, a Marine Affairs and Fisheries Ministry spokesman told BenarNews late last week.

The Vietnamese fishermen, meanwhile, hope a social media campaign will spur their government to bring them back.

“About 200 fishermen are being detained at Tanjung Pinang center, many among them have been here for two or three years,” fisherman Ho Van Hieu, who is a representative of his detained compatriots, told RFA, referring to a center in Indonesia’s Riau Islands at the southern end of the South China Sea.

“Now, we hope the Vietnamese government helps bring us home in order to reunite with our families.”

A spokesman for Indonesia’s Marine Affairs and Fisheries Ministry told BenarNews that during 2020, 225 Vietnamese crew members were arrested for illegal fishing in Indonesia’s Fisheries Management Area.

“Of these, 26 are suspects while 199 are not suspects,” said Didik Agus, the ministry spokesman.

The ministry had contacted the Vietnamese government via its embassy in Jakarta about those allowed to return home, he said.

“The crew members who are not charged, based on the provisions of international and national law, have been allowed to return home from the beginning. However, the process of returning home certainly depends on the Flag State [the fishermen's country of origin], which should pay for their return,” Didik said.

“Communication has been made with the Government of Vietnam through its embassy in Jakarta; however, the Vietnamese Embassy has conveyed information that the COVID-19 pandemic situation poses significant obstacles to repatriating its citizens.”

It is usually crew members who are allowed to go back to their home countries, Abdi Suhufan, of the non-profit environmental group Destructive Fishing Watch Indonesia, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“Those who are detained are usually the skippers, while crew members are sent home, but maybe the Vietnamese government isn't prepared to repatriate them. Indonesia also has limited funds, shelters and interpreters,” Abdi said.

Fisherman Ho told RFA that he and his fellow fishermen had not been taken home because the Vietnamese Embassy in Indonesia had not issued them the necessary documentation. He also said that as of last week, there had been no flights to take them back.

RFA telephoned the Vietnamese Embassy in Indonesia for more information but no one answered the calls.

Fisherman Doan Van Nhieu told RFA that he hoped a social media campaign would help highlight their plight.

“We mostly are very poor, our children have not yet grown up and depend completely on our income from fishing. We wish relevant agencies could raise concern about our situation and take us home as soon as possible,” said Doan, who said he was detained in Indonesia 10 months earlier.

Ho also alleged that conditions in the detention center were abysmal.

“We have suffered a miserable life in this detention center, some days we had to eat uncooked rice and other days had stale rice. If we want to have a good meal we have to buy it at the canteen,” Ho said.

The ministry’s Didik denied this allegation.

“We need to inform you that all crew members are in good health and are being treated appropriately in accordance with applicable regulations,” Didik told BenarNews.

MY-LAOS_PIC.jpg

In this undated file photo, Lao fishermen are seen on the deck of a boat in Malaysia. [Citizen Journalist]

Lao fishermen in Malaysia

Separately, several Lao fishermen told RFA that 463 of them were stuck in Pahang state in peninsular Malaysia after fishing work wrapped up in November.

The fishermen said their homeward trip was delayed after the embassy in Kuala Lumpur took control of their travel plans, which were already complicated, with the Thai-Malaysia border closed due to the pandemic.

The men said they had already agreed to pay more than U.S. $400 each to a Malaysian travel agency to arrange flights home, but were then obliged to pay about $100 more to get on a charter flight home. But the flights promised by the embassy were repeatedly postponed.

“The embassy told us that we would fly back at the end of November,” a fisherman, who declined to be named, told RFA.

“We can’t wait any longer. The flights have been postponed three times. We can’t count on the embassy anymore,” the fisherman said.

An official at the Lao embassy in Malaysia confirmed to BenarNews that fishermen from his country were stuck in the country, but said he was made aware of them only after they filed a report with the embassy in the first week of December.

“We had no idea about their existence prior to that. We are aware of it now and last week we went to meet the fishermen in Pahang. I don't have the numbers because they are not in the embassy records, but there are hundreds,” said Sanexay Sadettan, chargé d'affaires at the embassy.

He said that Laos’s embassies usually have data on how many of their citizens are working in a given country, although it did not have such records for the fishermen in Pahang. Still, Sanexay said without explanation that their status in the country was “legal.”

“Currently we are providing food for them daily until they are sent back to Laos by chartered flights. They are all legal in Malaysia,” he said.

Sanexay said the embassy had planned to fly the fishermen home between Dec. 15 and Dec. 17, but the continued high number of COVID-19 cases in Laos had prevented this.

“We are waiting for approval from our government and there has been a delay because the numbers of COVID-19 cases are still high in Laos and our quarantine centers are full,” he said, adding that no new date had been set.

On Dec. 8, about 20 Laotians were arrested in Thailand’s southern Songkhla province, according to Thai media reports. The fishermen in Pahang said those men were among hundreds of their compatriots who gave up waiting and illegally entered Thailand in hopes of taking the overland route back to Laos.

An individual at the Pahang Fisheries Department, who didn’t give his name because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, told BenarNews the department had no information on foreign fishermen stranded in the state.

“These foreign nationals usually are hired as a crew to deep-sea fishing boats, which are allowed to conduct fishing activities in international water…The bases for these boats are in Pekan, Kuantan, and Rompin,” the source said, naming towns in Pahang.

“So far we did not receive any information about stranded foreign fishermen in Malaysia, especially Pahang,” the official said.

This report was updated to include comments from an official at the Embassy of Laos in Malaysia.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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