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Tamil Nadu fishermen in Persian Gulf: Exploited victims of territorial divisions

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Seline’s family is totally dependent on what her husband Joseph earns in Iran. Some six months ago, Joseph, who lived in Rajakkamangalam in Kanyakumari district got visa to go and work in that country. Some 20 other fishermen from his village and other villages in Kanyakumari and Tuticorin went with him.

Kanyakumari fishermen stranded on the streets of Iran

For six months they fished in the waters but when they asked for a share of the profits as agreed, their sponsor Mohammad Salah refused. On June 18, he turned them out of the house given to them and seized their passports and other forms of ID too.

The fishermen have been left stranded on the streets of Nakhl Taghi in Iran with no money. The fishermen called their families who took up the issue with the state government. The Tamil Nadu chief minister wrote to the prime minister on this. All efforts are being made to bring the fishermen ashore, says fishermen leader Father Churchill.

The woes of Joseph and his mates are not uncommon in Kanyakumari. Some 1,800 fishermen in Rajakkamangalam area are in the Persian Gulf region, working for foreign boat owners. They all face problems of their promised wages not being paid, says Justin Anthony, another fishermen leader.


Unaware of borders
The Persian Gulf is dotted with many countries, big and small, and territorial waters and fishing rights are lines drawn on water. Unaware of these, Tamil Nadu fishermen often fall foul of authorities there. When taken captive by the navies and coast guards of the countries, they often manage to inform their fellow Tamil fishermen in that region over wireless. But sometimes they are unable to send out an alert. They are often not taken to prison or made to follow the due process of law but detained in local police stations or in the boats, says Father Churchill, who adds that those detained find it difficult to get consular access. The Indian government is not brought into the picture and the local diplomats, even if they come to know about the plight of those detained, are unable to intervene without a formal direction from the Centre, he says.

“We spoke to consular officials several times in Hindi but they didn’t help us,” says Biju who served three months each in Iran and Saudi Arabian jails

 Biju, a 24-year-old fisherman of Rajakkamangalam, says this is indeed the case. He spent some three months in prison each in Iran and Saudi Arabia less than a year ago. “We spoke to consular officials several times in Hindi but they didn’t help us,” he adds. Biju says his Saudi sponsor, however, came to Iran and freed them. “After serving in Iranian jails, we were once again arrested by Saudi authorities when we went there for the crime of crossing Saudi waters and fishing elsewhere. We served three more months in a Saudi jail,” he adds.

These fishermen are typically recruited by agents or word-of-mouth and rarely have written contracts. They don’t work for monthly wages but are promised a share of the profits. Contracts are not honoured and fishermen are left high and dry. As soon as they land in the Gulf countries, their sponsors take control of their passports and give them ID cards issued by the nations. If there is a problem, sponsors seize their ID cards, say fishermen.

Father Churchill cites the case of Kerala where the fishermen often receive help from overseas Malayalee association. Tamil Nadu fishermen don’t have such networks to help them, he adds.

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