Iran seizes scores of Indian fishermen from Gulf waters

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Fishermen working in Bahrain were seized last month and are being held on an island off Iran, along with others from the UAE

Some of the Indian fishermen belonging to 25-member Bahrain group on a boat in Kish island under the custody of Iranian authorities (MEE/ Rejimon Kuttapan)
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Last update: 
Saturday 15 April 2017 17:05 UTC
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Iran has seized dozens of fishermen working in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, all expat workers from India, and is holding them on an island for allegedly straying into Iranian waters.

A week ago 15 Indian fishermen were released by Iran after being held in captivity for six months for straying into Iranian waters. But now a fresh group of 25 fishermen is being held in captivity where they lack shelter and food, activists say.

According to Indian activists, during the second and third week of March, 25 Indian fishermen from Bahrain were taken into custody by the Iranian authorities for reportedly straying into their waters.

The first group, on three boats, was taken into custody on 12 March, and a second group was seized on 23 March.

They join another group of 15 fishermen from the United Arab Emirates who were taken into custody on 27 December. 

"I talked to the fishermen from Bahrain over the phone. They are in fear. They are stranded without food and shelter. They are surviving on food supplied once in a while by traders who are docking at the port,” said Sister Josephine Valarmathi from India’s National Domestic Workers' Movement, who has filed a plea with the Indian government seeking the release of the fishermen.

The Bahrain-based fishermen claimed that they have not strayed into Iranian waters and were taken into custody forcefully while they were on their way to sell fish in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"We were on our way to UAE. We didn’t stray into Iranian waters. We were approached by the Iranian coastguard. They stopped us and boarded on our boats," Jegan Jerome, one of the stranded fisherman, claimed. 

"They were talking in Persian language. We couldn’t understand even a single word. They took our fish, seized our boat and took us under custody to Kish Island," Jerome told Middle East Eye.

"After reaching Kish Island, they have put us under surveillance. Every morning as part of investigation, they make us stand in the port under scorching heat for two hours and then will disappear. They don’t even ask about food or other things. It seems we will die here."



Emirati fishermen gather their catch on a beach along the coast of the Gulf on 9 April 2017 in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. (AFP)

Anitha Jegan, wife of Jerome, told Middle East Eye from India that she wants her husband to be released as earliest as possible.

"He is the sole breadwinner. We are struggling a lot. I plea the Indian government to get my husband and others released as earliest as possible. He told me that he struggling for food too. I praying to Almighty that nothing bad should happen to him,” Anitha said.

Huge visa fees

All the Indian fishermen are from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu who had migrated to Bahrain and UAE for fishing jobs, each paying what in India are huge fees up to $1500 to obtain job visas and are working to pay back the money, which they often have to borrow.

Meanwhile, Elangeshwaran Lakshmanan, who was one of the 15 Indian fishermen from UAE group, said that since December, they have been in custody and they are haunted with uncertainty about their future.

"We were taken into custody on December 27. There was another group. They were released last week. But we are still stuck here. Our sponsor from UAE had paid the fine last month. But still we are kept in the boat without food. Some are not well too. We are worried,” Elangeshwaran added.

Recurring issue

According to Valarmathi, fishermen landing in troubled waters have become a recurring issue and rescuing them is a painstaking task.

"In some cases, it takes months to force authorities to act. And in during this time, the fishermen families undergo a horrible situation without money and support,” Valarmathi said.
 
It was Josephine and her team who worked relentlessly to secure the release of earlier Bahrain group fishermen who were under Iran custody for six months.
 
"Daily I had to communicate with India, Bahrain and Iranian authorities to secure the release. Now, just a week after that, 40 more…,” Valarmathi added.
 
The 25 fishermen belonging to Bahrain group are from Kanyakumari, a coastal village in Tamil Nadu.
 
According to an Indian parliament document, Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu is believed to have the largest number of fishermen working in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries on board fishing vessels.
 
Kanyakumari district-based International Fishermen Development Trust founder and president P Justin Antony said that they have already established communication with the Indian embassy in Iran and have sought help to rescue the 25 fishermen from Bahrain.
 
"Upon our request, the embassy officials have contacted the fishermen and have extended support. We hope that soon, the fishermen will be released,” Anthony added.
 
Rafeek Ravuther, director at the Centre for Indian Migrant Studies (CIMS), said that nationals in Gulf countries rarely work at sea on fishing vessels.
 
"Though boats are owned by them, workers are mainly employed from India and Bangladesh,” Ravuther said, adding that the money offered by employers lure fishermen from villages like Kanyakumari to the Gulf.
 
A recent study released by Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in India on migration claims that at least one out of every 20 households in Tamil Nadu, predominantly along the coastal belt, includes migrant workers in Gulf and South Asian countries.
 
Ravuther said that most of them migrate on visas without knowing what kind of visa it is, which can cause problems later on.
 
"And when they land in trouble, it becomes complicated to rescue them,” Ravuther said.