CAccording to the British environmental organization Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Chinese boats are fishing illegally in the southwestern Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa. Serious human rights abuses are taking place while local traditional fisheries are under threat, according to a report published on Thursday. Almost three-quarters of the suspected vessels were on the EU's list of approved exporters at the time of the investigation.

Claudia Broell

African political correspondent in Cape Town.

So far, China's offshore fleet activities have caused confusion, especially in West Africa. According to the organization, the report is the first of its kind to focus on the eastern part of the continent. All tuna fleet crew members interviewed reported various human rights violations, with 80 percent also witnessing illegal finning of sharks, hundreds of sharks, sometimes “more than 30 per night.” The fins of the animal are cut off and the animal, still alive, is usually thrown back into the sea, where it dies in agony. This practice has long been banned in the EU.

20-hour days are said to have been common

A good 96 percent of those surveyed complained about excessive working hours and 55 percent about physical violence in the form of fist, foot or knife attacks. Three quarters of those surveyed also said that their identity documents had been taken from them. Many were also not allowed to leave the ships – some of those interviewed said they were not allowed to do so for up to two years. Some of the victims speak of “slavery” and the 20-hour days that were said to have been common. The monthly salary was 325 euros. According to the report, there are also references to deaths.

“Crimes are not limited to one vessel or region, but occur on board almost all Chinese vessels we have investigated in all regions and jurisdictions,” said Steve Trent, the organization's executive director. Although the Chinese government portrays its investments as a win-win for the Belt and Road Initiative, they actually cause direct harm.

The Intergovernmental Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and various relevant governments, including those of China, must urgently monitor and act on China's deep-sea fleet. For the report now presented, EJF interviewed, among others, 44 seamen who were employed on Chinese tuna fishing vessels. In addition, numerous datasets, photographs and vessel locations were evaluated.