In talks with her Chinese counterpart Thursday, Indonesia’s foreign minister expressed “profound concerns” about deaths of Indonesian workers aboard Chinese fishing vessels, as one of her staff announced that four more sailors had died in May and June, with their bodies tossed into the sea in July.
The announcement about the four deaths, which were not reported earlier, brought to at least 12 the number of Indonesian crew members on Chinese-flagged fishing boats who have died at sea since November 2019. According to labor activists and Indonesian officials, some of the sailors who died were treated harshly and made to work in strenuous conditions aboard those boats.
“I conveyed the Indonesian government’s profound concerns about the various incidents that befell Indonesian crews on board of Chinese fishing boats,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said after she and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met online for talks.
“Specifically, we urged the Chinese government to conduct a thorough investigation, followed by legal action, in connection with the deaths, the disposal of the bodies and improper working conditions,” Retno told an online press conference.
Judha Nugraha, the foreign ministry’s director for the protection of Indonesians overseas, said the government had received information that four Indonesians working on two Chinese fishing boats had died in May and June.
Judha said the sailors’ bodies were buried at sea in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in July, despite requests by Indonesian representatives in Singapore, Beijing and Guangzhou that they be repatriated to their home country.
“We are very concerned about the [sea burials] even though the practice is allowed in the maritime world, but that should be a last resort when repatriation is no longer possible,” Judha told the same press conference.
He said the ministry had reported the deaths to the police for an investigation and summoned labor agencies, which had recruited and deployed the sailors to Chinese boats, to ensure that the rights of the deceased and their families were met.
On Tuesday, the ministry summoned China’s ambassador to Jakarta, Xiao Qian, to convey the Indonesian government’s demand for an investigation, Judha said.
Chinese embassy officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
During Thursday’s meeting, China’s top diplomat promised to take the matter seriously, according to Santo Darmosumarto, director for the East Asia desk at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“[Wang Yi] agreed that this case should be given special attention and an investigation will be undertaken in accordance [with] Indonesia's request,” Santo told reporters.
So far, however, Chinese authorities have not named any suspects in connection with the deaths of Indonesian sailors.
“There is an inquiry at the relevant ministerial level, and there it’s not being treated as a criminal case,” Santo said.
Most Indonesians who are part of crews on foreign fishing boats have no proper working papers, making them vulnerable to exploitation, officials at the foreign ministry added.
The coordinator of Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia, an NGO, said he had not yet received a report about the deaths of the four sailors.
“There has been no report to any of our fisher’s centers,” Mohammad Abdi Suhufan told BenarNews, referring to a 24-hour hotline service run by the nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Indonesians working in the fishing sector.
According to his organization’s records, 11 Indonesian sailors had died on Chinese fishing boats, while two others were missing, he said.
There were still dozens of Indonesian seamen working on Chinese boats in international waters, Suhufan added.
Earlier in July, Indonesian authorities detained two Chinese boats as they sailed near Singapore after police received a tip that the body of an Indonesian sailor – later identified as Hasan Afriandi, 20 – had been kept in a freezer on one of the boats for a week.
A Chinese national, Song Chuanyun, 50, has been named a suspect in connection with Hasan’s death, police said.
On Monday, police said they had also arrested six executives of recruiting agencies on charges of human trafficking as part of the investigation into Hasan’s death. They could face 20 years in prison if convicted.
In another incident, two Indonesians jumped ship in the Malacca Strait last month to escape alleged abuse on a Chinese ship, officials said.
Suhufan said Indonesians working on foreign fishing boats were prone to exploitation and violence.
He urged the government to temporarily ban Indonesians from working on fishing boats in international waters until adequate protection was in place.
“Because if it’s not stopped then there is no guarantee that the practice of violence and slavery will cease. So far there have been no significant progress in the government’s efforts to negotiate with China,” he said.
“The government needs to strengthen prevention efforts, and recruitment should be more selective and in accordance with the procedure,” he added. “Supervision of manning agents must be improved so that they are professionally managed and those who are sent work in qualified vessels.”
Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta contributed to this report.