Following the adoption of the ASEAN Declaration on the Placement and Protection of Migrant Fishers, made on the occasion of the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May 2023, in which the ASEAN Member States committed themselves “to mobilise resources for the implementation of this Declaration and develop an ASEAN Guidelines on the Placement and Protection of Migrant Fishers,” a regional civil society consultation held in Jakarta in August 2023, concluded that the proposed Guidelines need to articulate strongly the vulnerability of workers in the fishing industry, especially those who are migrant, and should include provisions to ensure prevention of rights violations, protection, and effective remedies for migrant fishers.

As a result, a policy paper, titled “Proposal by the Regional Civil Society Consultation for the ASEAN Guidelines on the Placement and Protection of Migrant Fishers and Members of Their Families”, has been published to highlight the important contribution of migrant fishers and address their vulnerabilities. The paper makes specific recommendations on provisions to be considered in developing the Guidelines.

The paper notes that the Asia-Pacific maritime sector is one of the most influential sectors in the world economy. Southeast Asia lies in a strategic position, with its seas dominating the region. More than 80% of Southeast Asia is covered by oceans, home to more than 31,000 island economies. From 2008 to 2018, Southeast Asia contributed 20-25% of the total of aquaculture products in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

According to an Asian Development Bank report in 2021, aquaculture production in Asia accounted for 90% of the region’s total and approximately half of the world’s fishery production. An article published by the Asian Development Bank in 2022 stated that around 625 million people in the Southeast Asian region are dependent on the ocean economy for their livelihoods, and that it, represents 20% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the region which is much higher than in most other regions of the world.

The ocean-based economy provides significant numbers of jobs in East and Southeast Asia. As OECD states, the East Asia and Pacific region has the largest number of jobs in these industries (over 20 million) with jobs rising in the ASEAN region from 8.4 million in 2005 to 9 million in 2015.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2006, there were more than 1.5 million seafarers in the marine industry globally. The world fish market was expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 4.13% between 2014 and 2022, with the market predicted to reach 318 billion US dollars (USD) in 2022, and be worth 1.04 trillion USD in 2023. Asia remains the largest seafarer-supplying continent, and fishing is a massively significant source of income for Asian countries. As an example, the Philippines earned 6.5 billion USD from its seafarers in 2019.

However, high growth in this sector is not matched by investment in existing resources, including human resources. In the fisheries sector, the issue of overfishing, illegal fishing, and the scarcity of fishery resources have all had a negative impact on fishers who are, after all, the main suppliers of the profits being made within the industry, the paper points out.