Africa Defense Forum
ADF is a professional military magazine published quarterly by U.S. Africa Command to provide an international forum for African security professionals. ADF covers topics such as counter terrorism strategies, security and defense operations, transnational crime, and all other issues affecting peace, stability, and good governance on the African continent.

Human Trafficking Linked to Illegal Fishing in Gulf of Guinea


They toil for long, grueling hours without water or food.

They sleep on the decks of the fishing vessels where they work, exposed to the elements.

There is no medicine if they get sick, and they are routinely forced to work long after their contracts have expired with no additional pay.

That is what often happens to some workers who are tricked or forced into working on foreign industrial fishing vessels and have no way to escape. It is a form of human trafficking that often goes unnoticed by authorities.

Human trafficking is one of many crimes linked to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Throughout the Gulf of Guinea, fishing vessels also are increasingly used to traffic drugs and weapons, steal oil. and commit acts of piracy. The majority of industrial fishing vessels in West Africa are Chinese owned.

“As a criminal, they would reason why don’t they just add some other ‘venture’ to it like drugs, and because they are already involved in other criminal enterprises, they would not find it hard or wrong to keep people against their will, and moving people from one part of the world to another,” said maritime security expert Nasir Saheed, who used an alias when speaking with Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper.

In September 2022, dozens of human trafficking victims were rescued from two industrial fishing vessels in Namibian waters. Of the 60 people rescued from MV Shang Fu and the Nata 2 in Walvis Bay, four were Mozambican, four were Angolan and eight were Namibian. The others were from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, according to The Namibian newspaper.

Some rescued victims worked on the ships for several years. Immanuel Festus, a regional coordinator for Namibia’s Mining, Metal, Maritime and Construction (MMMC) workers’ union, told The Namibian that they likely were recruited for cheap labor.

Some trafficking victims on illegal fishing trawlers are children. According to the Center on Human Trafficking Research and Outreach, more than 13,000 children ages 5 to 17 were trafficked in Boké, Guinea, to work on fishing vessels from April 2020 to April 2021.

Abuses Linked to Chinese Vessels

Chinese trawlers are notorious for “flagging in” to African nations, meaning they use and abuse local rules to flag a foreign-owned and -operated fishing vessel into an African registry to fish in local waters. Flagging in is a common sign that vessels engage in illegal fishing.

China commands the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet and is the world’s worst illegal fishing offender, according to the IUU Fishing Index. Of the top 10 companies engaged in illegal fishing globally, eight are from China.

The Chinese fleet’s illicit activities are most acutely felt in West Africa, which has emerged as the world’s hot spot for IUU fishing. The practice steals an estimated $2.3 billion to $9.4 billion annually from local governments, according to the Financial Transparency Coalition.

Workers have complained of abuse on board Chinese trawlers for years.

Bright Tsai Kweku of Ghana told the BBC that he witnessed one crew member die of cholera because the Chinese crew would not take him to shore for treatment. He saw one crew member die of severe burns and another perish after being injured by a propeller.

Musa Sila has worked at sea for nearly four decades, but never in his career was he treated as poorly as when spent several months on a Chinese vessel in the Indian Ocean.

During a meeting with Kenyan maritime authorities, fisheries sector stakeholders and politicians,
Sila said he was forced to eat snakes and engage in crime, according to a report by Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation. Sila and other Kenyan fishermen said their Chinese supervisors told them not to complain and threatened to throw them overboard if they did not cooperate.

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