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Detained and ‘voluntarily’ removed: migrant fishers treated as criminals not victims by UK Home Office

news Press Release

19 October 2023, LondonThree migrant fishers who faced enforced removal and 10-year re-entry bans were voluntarily removed from the UK after being failed by their employer – who faced no penalty to date – and UK authorities who were unable to penalise the illegal employer.

The three Indian nationals legally entered the UK on seafarer’s transit visas with contracts to work as deckhands in international waters on a UK-flagged vessel owned by the UK-registered Star Fishing Company were taken from the scallop fishing vessel, the Star of Jura OB278. They were detained on May 19 by immigration authorities on suspicion of working in UK waters without the appropriate visas.

Despite their employer signing contracts with an agency stating they would be working in international waters, the trio were put to work inside UK waters, which requires them to have (as of April this year) a skilled worker visas. They were also put to work in port repairing the vessel for several weeks.

The crew contacted the ITF after they were told by immigration officials that they would be forcibly removed from the UK and banned from returning for 10 years. In response, ITF stepped in to support the crew with legal advice from specialist immigration lawyers, Paragon Law, while maritime welfare organisation Stella Maris provided support for the men while in detention.

“Time and time again we see migrant workers paying the cost for the UK’s broken immigration system,” said ITF Fisheries’ Section Chair Johnny Hansen.

“We have a case here where three migrant fishers have been thrown in detention for over a month and threatened with severe, life-changing punishments, as a result solely of the action of their employer to fish in UK waters. Yet it is the workers who pay the price for a rogue employer, like The Star Fishing Company, breaking the law. UK retailers have an obligation for Human Rights Due Diligence to ensure they are not buying from companies who knowingly criminalise their crew.

“Through no fault of their own these deckhands have now been ‘voluntarily’ removed from the UK with 12-month re-entry ban, a ban which has consequences to their livelihoods and ability to provide for their families. And it’s only because of the ITF that they didn’t get 10-year bans. The unfairness of this is an indictment on the UK Home Office."

The three deckhands were sent home on July 17, 20 and 21. To date, no action has been taken against the vessel owners despite their blatant disregard for laws enforced under the 2022 Nationality and Borders Act that prohibits crew who enter the UK on a transit visa from fishing in UK waters.

There has been no indication that UKVI has at any point considered that the crew were victims of exploitation or human trafficking, despite evidence of both. The UK agency who recruited the crew made it clear that any fishing in UK territorial waters requires a skilled worker visa and also requires guarantees from vessel owners that they will comply with the rules. Despite this, ITF understands that fines that can be levied by UKVI of £20,000 per crew member who illegally enters the UK to work were never issued.

ITF, with the help of Global Fishing Watch analysis, identified regular gaps in the AIS (Automatic Identification System) data when these vessels were at sea. These gaps can be attributed to issues with AIS reception in busy waterways like the English Channel or vessels intentionally switching off AIS transponders, which is against UK regulation for vessels over 15 meters. Further investigation by UK agencies is required to confirm compliance with AIS regulations, but this underscores the importance of enhancing transparency in the fishing sector to ensure greater accountability for crew rights and welfare.

While being a serious safety concern, ‘going dark’ enables vessels to hide where they are fishing from regulators, competitors, in this case from their crewing agency, as well as from UK authorities responsible for enforcing immigration rules.

Solicitor Thal Vasishta from Paragon Law, who has been representing the crew said today: “The Home Office clearly did not want to engage in the legal arguments that were being put forward that the three men are clearly the victims of an employer who has no regard for the law as it relates to working in the UK, nor for the consequences that his employees face when the law is breached.”

“This was clearly a case of forced labour, the inequity of power between the crew and the captain and the UKVI’s lack of following their own policy of fining and taking action against the ship for not following procedures on reporting on transit visa holders when they were in UK waters. These men have been treated as criminals, not victims, in this situation,” said Thal.

Across the industry globally deckhands have no control over where a vessel fishes, that is down to the owner and skipper.

“This case shows the consequences of breaking the law are only felt by the victims, and what is truly shocking is that the UKVI seem to not want to consider or investigate points related to forced labour, the power imbalance between crews and vessel owners or captains, and the UKVI’s complete failure to follow their own policies both in terms of enforcement and taking action against vessel owners and not following reporting procedures for transit visa holders found fishing in UK waters,” said Hansen.

The lack of consequences for vessel owners is striking. One of the owners, John MacAlister has previously been fined for illegal fishing, multiple times on multiple vessels he owns while holding influential positions within Scotland’s largest fishing association and regional fisheries management groups.”

In a letter to the ITF dated 22 May 2023, the UK Home Office, the department which runs UKVI, explained:

“The Government’s longstanding position has been that foreign nationals need permission to work in UK waters and that transit visas have never been an appropriate visa to use to work in the UK … The NABA received Royal Assent in April 2022 and was due to be commenced in October 2022 but to provide additional time for industries to fully prepare for any changes needed to ensure full compliance with the UK immigration system we delayed implementing the Section 43 provision until April 2023…


In addition, the historical use of transit visas to employ foreign nationals who do the majority of their work in UK waters means they have been working illegally. The Home Office is also concerned about increasing levels of labour abuse being discovered at sea and the sector must tackle these matters urgently.”

"This case shows in practice that these are just hollow words” said Hansen.


For more information, contact:
Chris Williams, ITF Fisheries Expert
+44 7720 682882