Slavery at Sea

Protecting Indonesia’s waters from illegal fishing and human trafficking

"There are few remaining frontiers on our planet, but perhaps the wildest, and least understood, are the world's oceans. Too big to police, and under no clear international authority, these immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation.” 
Ian Urbina

Ian Urbina has been an investigative reporter at The New York Times for over two decades – and is a winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News, a George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting, and is a producer of Emmy Award-nominated work. 

The Outlaw Ocean series, originally published in The New York Times, has since evolved into his new book after an additional five years of reporting. The book rights have been purchased by Netflix and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Ian’s new book, The Outlaw Ocean, came together through reporting done almost entirely offshore. He travelled across five seas and 14 countries in Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean, South America, and the Middle East. The resulting book is both a gripping adventure story and a stunning exposé. Ian’s unique reporting brings fully into view the disturbing reality of a floating world that connects us all, a place where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.

The issue of policing at sea has been thoroughly researched by Ian over the years – assessing efforts of many countries working to protect their waters from IUU (illegal, unregulated and unreported) fishing and human trafficking. 

Virgin Unite and Ocean Unite are honoured to be sharing Ian’s incredible stories. We encourage you to follow Ian’s ocean journey online, and to definitely purchase The Outlaw Ocean book and join the fight for a healthy, safe and sustainable ocean.

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Labour abuse at sea can be so severe that the boys and men who are its victims might as well be captives from a bygone era.

In interviews, those who fled recounted horrific violence: the sick cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a dark, fetid fishing hold.

This photo story focuses on Borneo, Thailand, and the Philippines and the danger facing those being trafficked across the Outlaw Ocean.

Borneo (6°01'00.1"N 116°07'07.5"E): In dark corners, you find heroes too. Men who are trafficked at sea often attempt to escape, facing potentially perilous repercussions. These men face a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse, played against bounty hunters hired by boat captains to capture these debt-bonded deckhands and forcefully bring them back to their fishing ship.

To better understand how these trafficked men escape, Urbina travelled to Borneo. The world's third-largest island (after Greenland and New Guinea), Borneo's roughly 287,000 square miles are divided between three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Urbina chose Borneo simply because he had a source in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian part of the island, who was part of an underground railroad dedicated to rescuing captive workers.

Thailand (13°31'53.9"N 100°36'04.1"E): Governments struggle to fix the problem and are sometimes complicit. Urbina joined the Royal Thai Navy for its at-sea inspections to see how this country is trying to stop fishing boats from using debt bonded and trafficked migrants from nearby Cambodia and Laos. Inspectors are ill-equipped, police are often in cahoots with traffickers, and a bloated outdated fleet is uneconomic without cheap captive labour.

Urbina recounts the story of Lang Long, who was trafficked from Cambodia into Thailand and sold to a fishing boat captain for $530; remaining at sea for three years and sold three more times before being rescued in 2014, Long’s story became a talking point for then-Secretary of State, John Kerry. 

Lang Long’s ordeal began in the back of a truck. After watching his younger siblings go hungry because their family’s rice patch in Cambodia could not provide for everyone, he accepted a trafficker’s offer to travel across the Thai border for a construction job. It was his chance to start over. But when he arrived, Mr. Long was kept for days by armed men in a room near the port at Samut Prakan. He was then herded with six other migrants up a gangway onto a shoddy wooden ship. It was the start of three brutal years in captivity at sea.

Another, similar story is that of Asorasak, who was enslaved on a boat. He shares his experiences in the video below...

Philippines (11.6544° N, 122.3476° E): Offshore bondage occurs not just at the hands of scofflaw ship captains. Companies participate too. They’re called manning agencies and they handle crew logistics and recruitment. These “manning agencies” trick villagers in the Philippines with false promises of high wages and send them to ships notorious for poor safety and labor records.

The worst among them bureaucratize human trafficking, duping small villagers into losing contracts. Here it is important to mention the story of Eril Andrade, who left his small village in September 2010 a healthy young man, only to return in a wooden coffin missing an eye and his pancreas, jet black from having been kept in a fish freezer aboard a ship for more than a month. He had been hoping to earn enough on a fishing boat on the high seas to replace his mother’s leaky roof.

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean conservation action.

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean

Image from Ian Urbina | The Outlaw Ocean