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VERA FILES AT 10: Rising number of trafficked fishermen alarms Tawi-Tawi authorities

VERA Files is 10 years old.

To mark our 10th anniversary, we are reposting 10 stories that mirror the group’s interest and commitments.

This story was first published on April 21, 2014.

BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi — Tawi-Tawi authorities are alarmed at the growing number of fishermen from the Visayas who end up here after being recruited by human trafficking syndicates to engage in dangerous compressor diving.

The latest case involves 13 fishermen rescued from a fishing village here on March 15 by a team composed of the Tawi-Tawi Provincial Police Office (PPO), Philippine Marines and the Bongao Inter-agency Task Force Against Trafficking in Persons (BIATFAT).

The case is the eighth recorded by BIATFAT since December 2012, and brings the total number of rescued fishermen to 80, all of them from Cebu and Bohol.

“They have taken a huge risk in accepting compressor diving work here,” said Inspector Elmira Relox, chief of the Tawi-Tawi PPO Women and Children Protection Desk, who led the rescue.

Compressor diving, a dangerous deep-sea fishing method, requires the fishermen to dive into the water without any gear, except for a plastic hose attached to an air pump on the surface. The diver inhales air through the hose when deep underwater.

Police said compressor diving killed one fisherman and incapacitated another. The casualties, both of who had been recruited along with the 13 rescued fishermen, were not identified.

The rescued fishermen told police they started working for a certain Nelson Mohammad in September 2013, with the contract supposed to expire last February.

Mohammad, however, reportedly detained them in his residence after they complained of unfair pay and refused to extend their contract. He also claimed the fishermen still owed him money he had advanced to them in Cebu and their transportation expenses going to Tawi-Tawi.

Police said one of the fishermen escaped by swimming in the shallow waters off the edge of Bongao island and alerted the local authorities to the group’s situation.

Prosecutor Ivy Damayo of the Sea-based Anti-trafficking Task Force said hundreds more fishermen are trapped in dire working conditions on the islands.

The 13 rescued fishermen are from Lapu-Lapu City. The youngest is 19, the oldest 48.

“They were exploited and harassed by their employers,” Relox said.

According to police, fishermen from Cebu and Bohol are lured by recruiters who are known or related to them.

Fishing is a leading source of livelihood in Tawi-Tawi. (Photo by Jake Soriano)

These recruiters advance the fishermen a portion of the promised salary ranging from P10,000 to P15,000 to get them to agree to work in Tawi-Tawi usually on a six-month contract. The fishermen are also promised a share of the profit from the catch.

But the agreements are made only orally. Once in Tawi-Tawi, the deep-sea divers are left to the mercy of their employers, and the promises forgotten.

BIATFAT focal person Rosabella Sulani said the fishermen usually work from 3 p.m. until 7 the next morning.

When their contracts are about to expire, the fishermen are told they still owe their employers money and they would have to stay to be able to pay their debts. The victims, therefore, get caught in a vicious cycle of debt bondage, Sulani said.

Fishermen are also regularly threatened with violence, according to police. Their employers usually carry firearms and claim to have a network of contacts among the local authorities in Tawi-Tawi.

Mohammad managed to evade capture when local authorities raided his residence to rescue the 13 fishermen and, according to Sulani, has become the newest addition to the growing list of suspects behind the trafficking of fishermen from Cebu and Bohol to Tawi-Tawi.

He is the first to be identified operating in Languyan town near Bongao, capital of Tawi-Tawi, said Sulani.

The victims told police that Mohammad lives in Sama-Kasulutan in Simandagit, Bongao, reputedly a den for lawless elements, including members of the Abu Sayyaf. He is known to carry firearms, and once fired a gun in the air when he got mad at his employees.

One of the rescued fishermen told police that Mohammad also claims to be well connected to law enforcement officials in Tawi-Tawi.

Three other suspects identified by Sulani allegedly employing compressor divers in the island municipalities of Sibutu and Sitangkai are Anthony Jumat and the brothers “Ugly” and Jimmy Haibit.

BIATFAT records of Bongao cases referred to Zamboanga City show that Jimmy Haibit was charged with human trafficking on July 16, 2013. The case is awaiting resolution.

Also charged was Policarpio “Paul” Mantos, who reportedly recruits fishermen from Cebu and Bohol.

BIATFAT, meanwhile, referred on Jan. 29 a trafficking case against Jumat to the Zamboanga City Prosecutor’s Office. Task force officials said Jumat is also known as a notorious drug pusher in Tawi-Tawi and that he allegedly works with recruiter Jefferson Daño.

Last Sept. 5, BIATFAT rescued a fisherman from Bohol who said as payment for the amount given to him in advance in Bohol, Jumat made him peddle the illegal drug methamphetamine hydrochloride, also known as shabu.

Sulani said some fishermen are forced to use “shabu” to combat tough sea conditions, particularly the extreme cold at night.

No cases have been filed against Mohammad, his recruiter, identified as Eduardo Tumulak, and “Ugly” Haibit. They are at large.

The Tawi-Tawi PPO and the BIATFAT turned over the 13 rescued fishermen to authorities in Zamboanga, who in turn facilitated their return to Cebu.

Relox said catching the employers and recruiters remains a problem for the police. “They are just too good,” she said, referring to human traffickers’ skills at evading authorities.

While many victims have been rescued, only a few are interested in pursuing cases, Damayo said. Among the 80 rescued, she said, “only about three are interested” in legal action against their former employers and recruiters.

(This story is part of VERA Files’ project “Human Trafficking Casewatch” supported by the U.S. Embassy’s Small Grants Facility and the Embassy of Canada.)