On a cold January morning in 2023, Mariyappan woke up to an email that would change his life forever. A fishing company in the United Kingdom was offering him a job as a deckhand for a monthly salary of 1,400 pounds, or Rs 1,47,000, an amount that he thought could lift his family out of poverty.

Mariyappan, who belongs to a fishing community in Kanniyakumari, Tamil Nadu, immediately accepted the offer, from the Star Fishing Company. On February 26, he boarded a plane in Chennai and reached London, flying via Doha. He had been issued a transit visa, which offers holders a 48-hour window to pass through United Kingdom territories.

His destination was Aberdeen, a port city in northeast Scotland, where a car was waiting to transport him to the fishing vessel to which he had been assigned, Star of Jura. He joined the boat on February 27 and began his work alongside two other Indians, Bishan and Santosh, who were from Kerala and who were already part of the crew as deckhands. (Crew members asked to be identified by pseudonyms because they feared their livelihood opportunities would otherwise be jeopardised.)

A deckhand’s job is to clean decks, prepare fishing gear, maintain equipment, and manage the catch. With his family in mind, Mariyappan laboured day after day onboard the Star of Jura.

On May 19, 2023, the Star of Jura’s captain, who was English, decided to dock the ship at Whitby Harbour in northern England for routine service and repair work. The next morning, the United Kingdom Border Force arrived at the vessel and confiscated all the Indian fishermen’s documents, including passports and discharge books, which are documents that record seafarers’ work experience and qualifications. They then arrested all three for allegedly breaking a law that bars transit-visa holders from entering the country except when they are passing through it. They were also accused of violating a rule that bars fishers with transit visas from working within 22 km of the British coast.

For more than a month after, the three workers were held in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre – their families back home were not informed of their incarceration. Authorities also threatened that they would be banned from working in the United Kingdom for ten years.

Although the ban was reduced to one year after the intervention of workers’ bodies and lawyers representing the crewmen, on July 9, 2023, the men were deported back to India, which is home to the second-largest number of seafarers after the Philippines. They remain in the country, out of work and uncertain about their futures.

The Star of Jura reportedly went out to fish again the following day, according to Chris Williams, a fisheries expert at the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global organisation that advocates for seafarers’ rights, safety and better working conditions. Star Fishing Company did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The workers’ arrest and deportation came two years after the United Kingdom and India forged a partnership that focuses on preventing immigration abuse, enabling the legal movement of workers and returning irregular migrants between the two countries.

Simultaneously, the United Kingdom has also unleased a significantly more aggressive on-ground policy against immigrants of all nations – in 2023, immigration enforcement raids saw a rise of 68%.

British recruitment agencies started hiring Indian crew for the United Kingdom’s fishing industry only around five years ago – they found these workers with the help of agents in India. Mariyappan, Bishan, and Santosh were among the first migrant Indian fishermen working on United Kingdom fishing boats to be arrested for alleged visa violations.

Legal experts and rights bodies argue that the arrest of the fishermen and their subsequent deportation to India brings to the fore the widespread and unreported abuse of Indian seafarers on fishing vessels in the United Kingdom. Under the transit-visa system, fishing companies hire seafarers or deckhands from outside the country, and outside the European Union, for as little as a third of the price of British crewmen. The companies hire these workers because the fishing force of the United Kingdom is aging and the industry is struggling with labour issues.

Once on board, seafarers are no longer governed by the United Kingdom’s employment laws and immigration controls, a legal loophole used by fishing companies, boat owners, and skippers to exploit and abuse migrant workers, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

As a result, they end up working and living aboard the boats in international waters, in poor conditions and beyond any legal oversight.

These problems were highlighted in a report by the University of Nottingham Rights Lab in 2022.

The researchers found rampant abuse of migrant fishermen on United-Kingdom-flagged fishing vessels. Among other problems, it found that workers were overworked, underpaid, made to perform tasks outside the remit of their jobs, and frequently subjected to verbal and psychological harassment. Such treatment, it observed, was in contravention of the International Labour Organization’s laws pertaining to the fishing sector. The report noted that “exploitative labour practices and forced labour are endemic across the UK fishing industry. These practices are compounded by ambiguous laws that are often interpreted differently by different actors.”