Indonesia returns 166 detained fishermen to Vietnam

Indonesia repatriated 166 Vietnamese fishermen to their home country this week after detaining them and confiscating their boats on suspicion of illegal fishing in Indonesian waters, government officials said Tuesday.

The fishermen departed for Vietnam on a flight from Batam Island on Monday, said an official with the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

“Repatriation of those who are not facing justice will continue to be carried out in stages,” Adm. Adin Nurawaluddin, the ministry’s director general of marine and fishery resources monitoring, said in a statement.

The flight follows a similar one in late September when 200 fishermen left Batam for Vietnam on a chartered flight arranged by the government in Hanoi. Adin said the Indonesian government had been working with the Vietnamese embassy in Jakarta to arrange repatriations.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, about 500 Vietnamese fishermen had been stranded in Indonesia, some spending more than a year in shelters and detention centers run by the fisheries ministry and immigration authorities across the archipelago.

Indonesia is holding another 132 Vietnamese fishermen in separate locations, according to Teuku Elvitrasyah, another senior official at the fisheries ministry. He said he hoped they would be sent home as soon as possible.

“We will coordinate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Law and Human Rights to push the Vietnamese embassy, so that the remaining crew members can be immediately repatriated,” Elvitrasyah said.

Indonesian officials have said that pandemic-induced lockdowns had prevented the fishermen from being sent home more quickly, and that the Vietnamese government had made no attempt to arrange a repatriation flight.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hanoi would repatriate fishermen detained in Indonesian waters within two months, a government official had said.

After the September flight, Mohammad Abdi Suhufan, the coordinator of Destructive Fishing Watch Indonesia, an NGO, welcomed the repatriation of the Vietnamese fishermen.

“They should have been sent home a long time ago, but it seems like Vietnam neglected them, and this has created a burden for Indonesia,” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, at the time.

Nearly 50 ships detained this year

Beginning in January through the end of October, Indonesian authorities detained 48 foreign fishing boats for alleged poaching, including 25 from Vietnam.

The two nations have conducted 13 rounds of negotiations to establish their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the South China Sea, but no agreement has been reached.

Abdul Halim, executive director at the Center for Maritime Studies for Humanity, said unclear boundaries have led to Vietnamese fishermen straying into Indonesia’s EEZ.

“Vietnam is currently experiencing a shortage of fish and this has driven their fishing vessels to encroach on Indonesia’s EEZ,” Halim told BenarNews.

He said about 2,000 Vietnamese ships, often escorted by the nation’s coast guard vessels, had been spotted fishing in Indonesia’s EEZ.

Halim urged the Indonesian government to speed up border talks and improve coordination among institutions in charge of maritime security.

An Indonesian fisherman, Wandarman, said he often encountered Vietnamese in the North Natuna Sea, the Indonesian name for territory it claims in the South China Sea.

“During a week at sea, I wound up running into five Vietnamese ships measuring 30 to 50 GT [gross tons]. They are still entering our waters as we speak,” Wandarman told BenarNews

Meanwhile, Vietnamese fishermen who have been stranded in Indonesia have complained about poor living conditions in detention centers. Among their complaints, they said they were not getting enough food or being given food they could not eat.

Indonesia’s government dismissed the complaints.

“We feed them and there are quite a lot of them. No one is hungry. They can eat three to four times a day,” Pung Nugroho Saksono, a director at the fisheries ministry, told BenarNews in May.

Previously, detainees at Tanjung Pinang, the capital of Riau Islands province, sent videos of themselves to Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews, in December 2020 to highlight their living conditions.

In May, a fisherman who asked to be identified as Mr. Bien told RFA that Vietnamese officials had visited the detention center in early February to collect information after the videos had been published.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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