ECOLOGY: The human cost of fishing in South East Asia
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: June 28, 2019


The word «slavery» is so far removed from the everyday reality of many that it is almost just a concept, an ethical matter that has no real emotional dimension or urgency. Yet, millions of people worldwide are enslaved as I type this, inhabiting a sort of hidden parallel world we never see. Ghost Fleet – Shanon Service’s first feature film – addresses this contemporary problem, showcasing its emotionally striking reality. The film won the Activist Documentary Award at the Movies That Matter Festival this spring, and it is a powerful documentary of tragedy and courage, telling the stories of enslaved fishermen in South East Asia, and of Thai activist Patima, a courageous and devoted woman who dares to fight for them.

Decades of overfishing

Thailand has a fishing industry worth millions, and because of decades of overfishing, ships have to go deeper and deeper into the sea, sometimes spending months on the water. Thai fishermen are no longer interested in doing this work because of the low wages and the months spent offshore. This made the fishing industry develop a dark side, literally buying crewmembers from a mafia that tricks or kidnaps young men, both from Thailand and neighboring countries, like Burma and Vietnam. Once on these boats, these enslaved men work relentless hours, doing dangerous work for no pay and no possibility to leave. They are disposable and their captains don’t care if they die or live.

The ships sail deep into the sea, reaching Indonesian waters. Surrounded by water, the only chance to leave or escape is when Malaysian authorities capture the ships. When that happens, the crew is jailed and the captain sent home, the thought behind this approach being that the companies will want to retrieve their men. But that never happens. So they end up scattered around the many Malaysian islands, some hiding, and some starting families, working for low wages and never coming home.

what she finds are faces of psychological trauma

That is unless Patima finds them. She runs a Bangkok-based organization that maps the locations of these men and tries to bring them home. The camera follows her on such a trip, and what she finds are faces of psychological trauma, men that bury deep pain and struggle to survive. «Do you want to go home?» is a question she asks all of them, and their reaction at the weight of a question they never thought anyone would …


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