Singapore is set to become the first nation in Southeast Asia to publicly screen Ghost Fleet, an acclaimed documentary that reveals the full extent of slavery at sea throughout the region.

The hero of the documentary, Patima Tungpuchayakul, who is credited with rescuing more than 4,000 fishermen and aims to rescue hundreds more, is visiting the island nation with Chutima Sidasathian, the documentary’s field producer, herself a noted activist.

The two women, whose image has been used to promote Ghost Fleet at prestigious film festivals around the world, are now hoping that the Singapore screenings in September will lead to cinema screenings in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia and especially Thailand, which has long been seen as the hub of regional fishing and slavery.

Hundreds of rescued foreign fishermen, mostly from Myanmar and Thailand, are gathered by Indonesia's illegal fishing taskforce and Thai officials at an Indonesian fishing firm on April 3, 2015, in remote Benjina Island. Photo: AFP/ Ugeng Nugroho/ Ministry of Fishery
Hundreds of rescued fishermen, mostly from Myanmar and Thailand, gathered by Indonesia’s illegal fishing taskforce and Thai officials at a fishing firm in April 2015, in remote Benjina Island. Photo: AFP/Ugeng Nugroho/Ministry of Fishery

“People around the world have had the opportunity to see Ghost Fleet,” said Patima, whose exploits have been viewed in Telluride, Toronto and Berlin and at other prestigious film festivals. “But it’s in Southeast Asia that slavery and abuse is still happening and where the citizens of the countries involved need to be told the truth.”

In Ghost Fleet, cameras accompany Patima and Chutima and a rescue crew from Thailand on a voyage to remote parts of Indonesia, where they find fishermen who have either been deliberately stranded or who have jumped overboard to flee years of abuse.

Some rescued fishermen have spent five, 10 or even as long as 24 years on remote islands, without their families ever knowing they are still alive.

“The Thai government has reacted to slavery because it influences the country’s standing in the annual US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report,” Patima said. “And consumers around the world are beginning to ask whether their fish was caught by slaves.”

For decades, captains on Thai trawlers took onboard fishermen who had been kidnapped and sold by traffickers or decided to keep other workers at sea indefinitely, without pay. Cambodians, Laos and Myanmarese were even easier marks than Thais.

The international acclaim for Ghost Fleet has helped to endorse new laws in Thailand designed to end slavery. But enforcement beyond coastal waters remains difficult because outlaw fishing captains use a “mothership” strategy.

Legal vessels head to shore with the catches while illegal vessels stay at sea with crews of slaves. The men never get within swimming distance of their home ports, which is why so many of them eventually take their chances, whether they can swim or not, by plunging overboard near remote islands.

Illegal fishing boats are burnt by the Pacific island nation of Palau, which created a huge marine sanctuary in late 2015. Palau followed Jakarta's tough line against illegal fishing boats. Photo: AFP / Pew Charitable Trusts / Jeff Barabe
Illegal fishing boats are burned by the Pacific island nation of Palau, which created a huge marine sanctuary in late 2015. Palau followed Jakarta’s tough line against illegal fishing boats. Photo: AFP/Pew Charitable Trusts/Jeff Barabe

Patima’s Bangkok-based Labor Protection Network, the organization she co-founded, continues to depend on uncertain donations from international charities for its own survival.

“We know there are fishermen in the region who need rescuing now,” Patima said. “But without the funds to put a boat to sea, we just have to take their telephone calls and ask them to wait a bit longer.”

Strong stance

The Indonesian government, like the Thai government, now takes a strong stance against slavery at sea. “Beyond the fate of the fishermen, what’s needed is exposure of the whole fishing industry supply chain,” Patima said. “Thai fishing boats sail a long way from Southeast Asia to catch fish, so international cooperation is essential.

“Consumers around the world are beginning to ask how they can be certain the fish on their dish wasn’t caught by slaves. It shouldn’t be long before more governments follow their lead and help to shed light on an industry that still hides its secrets.”

Graves on Benjina Island in Indonesia have markers with names of fishermen said to have been enslaved at sea. They were seen during an operation by local and Thai officials in April 2015. Hundreds of others were rescued. Photo: AFP/Ugeng Nugroho/Ministry of Fishery

Next month the documentary is due to be shown at several more film festivals around the world, including in Colombia, South America and Norway. Screenings in Southeast Asia beyond Singapore have yet to be arranged.

Ghost Fleet is directed by Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron and produced by Vulcan Productions and Seahorse Productions.

GHOST FLEET is showing at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore, through September. Details on screening times are available at the museum’s Facebook page.