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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

Identifying and Preventing Human Trafficking in the Maritime Sector

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

"Labor in the maritime sector is all too often distinguished by inadequate wages, harsh working conditions, human rights violations, forced labor, and trafficking."

People in almost every country use the world’s oceans to make a living through commercial trade and fishing. Maritime transport is an integral component of supply chains for nearly every market, and the fishing industry provides income for an estimated 60 million people globally. With more than 62,000 ships in the world trade fleet and more than 4 million fishing vessels in operation at any given moment, it’s no surprise that maritime authorities have a tough time managing risks and regulations.

Labor in the maritime sector is all too often distinguished by inadequate wages, harsh working conditions, human rights violations, forced labor, and trafficking. A significant number of those employed in the maritime sector, especially fishing, are vulnerable to human trafficking and labor infringements - primarily due to the remote and concealed nature of their working environments.

Since most of those employed in the maritime sector are inherently nomadic, the chances of victims being recognized at a port are improbable - making it easier for traffickers of any type to operate at sea. This was especially true during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when crewmembers were forced to work long hours under manipulated contracts, ultimately being paid less than they agreed to work for - or sometimes without pay entirely.

It’s not just those working in the fishing industry that are at risk, though. Men, women, and children of all ages and nationalities are subject to human trafficking and human rights violations, whether through forced labor, coerced labor, or sex trafficking. The US Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Task Force estimates that over 80% of US-based sex trafficking victims are US citizens - with the average person first subjected to commercialized sex trafficking at just 13 years old.

Below, we look closer at how human trafficking organizations use maritime pathways to operate under the radar, and we outline some of the strategies used by authorities to mitigate the risks to vulnerable workers and trafficking victims.

Prioritizing the Prevention of Human Trafficking in the US and Abroad

While the United States government has long prioritized the prevention of human trafficking, the recent chaos within the maritime sector has led trafficking organizations to thrive. Earlier this year, the US Department of Transportation launched a program to fight human trafficking on a global scale, asking maritime transportation leaders to commit to a role in preventing trafficking at the heart of the problem. The commitment involves training employees and those in vital positions, often at shipping ports, to recognize and report such violations - hoping that targeting key transition points will significantly prevent trafficking occurrences.

Over 200 groups involved in the transportation industry have joined the pledge - which outlines a five-year approach to identifying and prosecuting human trafficking organizations and protecting current and potential victims.

Mitigating Human Trafficking at Global Shipping Ports

Seaports are a primary transition point for maritime human trafficking, so setting up the appropriate checkpoints at seaports is a critical step to mitigating human trafficking occurrences. Port employees are arguably the most valuable assets to maritime authorities in this fight, as they can be trained to identify and report suspected human rights violations. As more ports recognize they have a critical role to play in preventing human and labor trafficking, authorities should be able to prevent criminal organizations from operating as easily as they have in the past.

Business Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) is a non-profit organization that helps prevent human trafficking and labor violations at sea. BEST created a training tutorial called “Ports to Freedom” to help port authorities better recognize signs of potential trafficking - which has been increasingly adopted by numerous seaports and maritime organizations.

"Maritime employees are in a unique position to help people who are forced or coerced to work against their will… Ports to Freedom can help employees become advocates for victims when they are trained to know how to spot a potential trafficking situation. This can allow more exploited people the chance to escape their traffickers and rebuild their lives.” -- Mar Brettmann, CEO of BEST

The Relationship Between Commercial Fishing and Human Trafficking

According to the Global Fishing Watch, as many as 100,000 individuals on up to 4,200 commercial fishing vessels were subject to human trafficking or human rights violations in 2018. Human trafficking and labor violations are notoriously difficult to identify in the commercial fishing sector. This rings true for several reasons:

  • Fishing vessels are at sea for extended periods - in some instances, several years at a time.

  • Exploited fishing crews are difficult to locate.

  • Migrants are especially vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor, as they often come from poor or undeveloped areas.

  • Migrant fishing workers often have little or no education, making them unaware of unethical and unlawful working conditions.

  • Many crewmembers come from extreme poverty or backgrounds with historical unemployment.

While no single set of components defines vulnerability to human trafficking, the above conditions and factors are a good place to start.

Exploited individuals are usually persuaded by the promise of gainful employment with an adequate salary when, in reality, they are often transported across international borders in the middle of the ocean while underpaid and working extremely long hours. These individuals then find themselves in unfamiliar situations with little opportunity to pull themselves out. Even when they have the knowledge and know-how to do so, they are often threatened by trafficking leaders - making it rare for them to report the incidents to the proper authorities.

Potential indicators of human trafficking and human rights violations aboard commercial fishing vessels may include:

  • Port Avoidance

  • Unusual or Extended Time at Sea

  • Transshipment Anomalies

  • Low Vessel Engine Power

  • High Numbers of Annual Voyages

How Vessel Tracking Helps Uncover the Dark Side of Maritime Trade

Researchers from Google, Skytruth, and the Global Fishing Watch recently published a large-scale analysis of fishing vessel interactions at sea - exposing the potential extent of human rights abuses and unmanaged trade in open water.

“Some human rights abuses have been associated with transshipment. By allowing fishing vessels to remain at sea for months or even years at a time, captains are able to keep their crew at sea indefinitely, resulting in de facto slavery.” -- Dr. Nathan Miller, Skytruth.

The study analyzed more than 30 billion tracking signals from AIS data of vessels at sea to identify potential transshipment occurrences - including refrigerated cargo vessels that loitered in place long enough to have possibly conducted an illicit transfer.

“Our research is unique in its scale, but also in that we use a big data technology platform and satellite tracking data to provide the first public view of the potential extent of global transshipment,” said Miller.

Results from the study suggested that transshipment occurrences were beyond the reach of any single nation’s authority - and that a global approach and perspective are needed to truly understand the human rights and labor violations happening on shipping and fishing vessels.

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