Getting Jorge Home

This is my very first blog entry, and I dedicate it to Augusto Faustino Jorge – or, as he introduced himself, Jorge.

I first met Jorge face-to-face on Tuesday, 20 July 2010, at the Jurong Fishery Port here in Singapore. Jorge, 32, is from Mozambique (a country in southeastern Africa). He had been part of a crew on board the Tai Yuan 111, a Taiwanese fishing vessel. While the senior crew – for example the captain and engineers – were from China, the fishermen were made up of men from Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Mozambique and Kenya.

The ship had been out at sea for 15 months straight – yes, that’s right, 15 months without touching dry land – and finally docked at Singapore’s Jurong Fishery Port on 10 June 2010. The reason they docked here was because the ship’s chief engineer had died suddenly (apparently from a burst vessel in his brain). Otherwise, they would still be out at sea, fishing off the Indian Ocean, for at least another three months.

Once the ship docked, the desperate fishermen on board attempted to jump ship. A Filipino fisherman, through a relative’s contact, managed to get in touch with H.O.M.E., a local NGO assisting migrant workers. After a series of negotiations, the Filipino men were allowed to leave the ship and return to the Philippines. To do so, they forfeited a substantial portion of their withheld wages.

Four other Mozambique fishermen (plus one Kenyan), also managed to leave the ship and return home. Jorge, however, remained stranded. One by one, he watched his fellow crew leave but he was branded NTL – NOT TO LAND – by immigration authorities here. His Mozambique passport had expired in September 2009 – while the Tai Yuan 111 was still out at sea. There is no Mozambique embassy in Singapore – the closest one is in Jakarta.

The ship was docked at the Jurong Port for more than a month before Jorge was finally allowed off it. The day I finally met him was the day he was due to leave the ship and head directly to Changi Airport to catch his flight from Singapore to Johannesburg, where he would disembark and take a three-hour bus ride back to Mozambique. His Special Pass was valid for just four hours – 10pm to 2am (his flight was at 2am).

As we made our way to Changi Airport, I grew to understand Jorge’s desperation at leaving – the real terror of being left on board if the ship left the port and went back out to sea.

Life at sea
The Tai Yuan 111 was a deep-line fishing vessel, and at any one time, there would be 3,000 active lines with hooks dangling overboard. The crew often worked 16-17 hours, sometimes sleeping only 4-5 hours. They caught tuna, swordfish, sometimes shark – one fish could weigh over 65 kg. Once a fish was caught, it would have to be scaled, gutted, sliced and put in the deep freezer.

It was dangerous out at sea, and the men were not provided safety vests. “Only the captain and engineers had safety vests,” said Jorge, “but not us”.

A fellow Mozambican, a friend of Jorge’s, died at sea. He had been tugging on a line and the fish – Jorge suspects it was a shark – pulled back with some ferocity. The line was wound tightly around his friend’s hand and he could not struggle free. He screamed for help, but no one came forward on time and he flew overboard into the ocean. It was 2am in the morning and pitch black.

Jorge said the captain took a long time to stop the ship and conduct a search. The search lasted only two hours – Jorge says under those conditions, they should have searched at least five hours – before the captain announced: There’s nothing we can do. GET BACK TO WORK.

Frequently, the new crew endured violent beatings by the senior crew, instigated by the captain. They would be beaten with hammers, hooks or bare fists. Where would they beat you, we asked Jorge. “Anywhere!” he replied, “The head, the back, anywhere…

“They beat us because they say we don’t know how to do things”, Jorge said, “but we are new, how are we to know?” For example, the captain (who is Chinese) might ask Jorge to bring him a knife – in Mandarin. “I would look at him, because I don’t know what he is saying, and he would beat me”. At first, Jorge and the rest of the new crew thought the beatings would end after a few months, when they learnt the ropes of deep-line fishing, but it didn’t – the beatings continued.

The men slept on bug-infested floor boards. There were no mattresses, no pillows, no blankets. If you were lucky, you might find an old blanket left behind by someone else. Some men would use their jackets, if they had any, to keep warm. A few of the men’s bodies were covered with bed bug bites.

The men showered with saltwater the entire 15 months. While freshwater tanks were available, the freshwater was reserved only for the captain and chief engineers. The crew had to make do with just saltwater. Drinking water was dirty, resulting in frequent stomach upsets. However, medicines were not provided.

There was definitely medicine on board, insists Jorge. But when they asked the captain, he would refuse them access to it. If the men insisted, the captain would say, “You want medicine? Ok, but I will cut your salary”.

For 15 months, the men ate rice with fish or pork, three times a day. Nothing else. There were no vegetables, no eggs, no tea, no dairy, no bread. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, it was rice with fish or pork, day in day out, for over 450 days. When a large ship came to their fishing vessel to collect their fish stock, or offload fuel, sometimes they would bring supplies of bread and other items – however, only the captain and engineers would have access to such items.

The salary promised was USD$210 a month. For Jorge, this was considered “high”, because the salary he got while working on a Spanish trawler previously was USD$140. His plan was to complete this stint on the Tai Yuan 111 and use the money to invest in a driver’s license in Mozambique (it costs around USD$500 to obtain a license to drive a large vehicle, like a lorry or tanker). This will enable him to quit the rough seaman’s life and get a “good job” as a driver. If he was lucky, he might even be able to earn USD$300 a month. Currently, his wife works in a supermarket and earns USD$125 a month; they have a young son aged five.

This plan, unfortunately, was foiled. While Jorge was finally allowed to leave the ship on 20 July, his salary was docked to pay for his airticket. For 15 months of hard labour, Jorge was meant to be paid about USD$3000. However, the company deducted USD$2000 for his passage home, leaving him with just USD$1000, of which he sent USD$600 home to his wife, who was worried sick and struggling without his remittances for 15 months. Jorge therefore returned home with just a few hundred US dollars on him.

Getting on board
It took three attempts before Jorge was finally allowed to board his Singapore Airlines flight to Johannesburg.

The first night, Tuesday 20 July, Jorge was not allowed to check in because his passport had expired. His seaman’s book was not considered a legitimate substitute. The agent wanted Jorge to head back up the ship, which was scheduled to leave soon. He refused. Understandably. Who on earth would want to return to that treacherous slave-like vessel?

The following day, we made a trip to the South African embassy in Singapore. A connecting flight from Johannesburg to Mozambique was also booked. Time was spent at the Singapore Airlines office at ION Orchard. More phone calls between H.O.M.E. and the Immigration Checkpoints Authority. In total, Jorge had his Special Pass extended three more times over the next few days, entailing numerous trips to the Marina Pier checkpoint. At one stage, the officers there grew familiar with us, saying, “Hey, we were waiting for you!”

Calls were also made to the Mozambique embassy in Jakarta. The embassy representative there also rang the Mozambique consulate in Johannesburg. Assurances were given that if there was any trouble when Jorge landed in South Africa, assistance would be rendered. But this was not enough to get Jorge on the flight. For the second night in a row, on Wednesday, 21 July, Jorge was not allowed to check in. The check-in staff were apologetic – especially after we explained how Jorge was stuck at sea for 15 months, during which his passport expired – but could not override orders from the top.

(And in case you were wondering, Jorge had told his recruitment agent in Mozambique that his passport was about to expire in six months before he boarded the ship. The agent had told him not to worry, that the ship would be out at sea for a maximum of six months – he would be able to disembark and renew his passport or else fly back home before it expired.)

Again, the agent wanted Jorge to return to the ship. Eventually, H.O.M.E.’s Executive Director, Jolovan Wham, decided to personally fly to Jakarta with Jorge’s passport and get it renewed, and fly back again on the VERY SAME DAY, in time for Jorge to catch the next 2am flight from Singapore to Johannesburg. There was yet another round of calls, and pleading with the ICA to extend Jorge’s Special Pass until this mission was accomplished.

Eventually, IT WAS DONE. Jorge’s Special Pass was extended till 2am, and Jolovan got his airticket and flew off to Jakarta on the first available flight that morning, expired passport in hand.

That very afternoon, after receiving the good news from Jolovan – passport extended till 2013! – and several hours before he was due to land, my husband Patrick and I spent the afternoon with Jorge. We walked along the Singapore River, past the Padang, visited the Merlion, and sat on the steps along the Esplanade, facing Marina Bay. We chatted about Singapore, and about Mozambique…

Jorge was curious, awed and amused by Singapore. He asked who was the man on our Singapore dollar bills (Yusof Ishak), why it was sometimes “Singapore” and sometimes “Singapura”, and how we paid our electricity bills. We told him if he left his popcorn packet on the ground and was caught, he might get fined $300 or have to serve a corrective work order. He laughed. We told him about Alan Shadrake, the British author who was arrested just a week ago for writing a book about Singapore’s death penalty. He shook his head in disbelief. During dinner, he asked us if we had ever shared a meal with a “black man” before.

And finally, when Singapore Airlines, on the third night, on our third try, with the renewed passport in hand, FINALLY issued him a boarding pass, and he was really (like REALLY) about to head back home to Mozambique, he looked at us – Jolovan, Patrick and I – and said he had one question to ask.

“Why? Why did you help me?” His face was a mix of earnestness and bewilderment. “When it got hard, why didn’t you just leave me?”

I was too startled and moved to reply.

Jolovan (who’d just stepped off the plane from Jakarta with the renewed passport!) explained that this is what H.O.M.E. does, it assists migrant workers, all kinds of migrant workers.

“I thought I was going to die at sea”, Jorge said, staring straight at us. “I thought I would never see my family again”.

It was a hard-won passage home. When Jorge finally walked through those departure gates, with his boarding pass (and luggage checked in all the way to Mozambique), it was more than relief. My insides were a simmering cocktail of outrage, sadness and gratitude.

And yet, the drama didn’t end there – not yet. For another nail-biting hour (and more), we waited outside as Jorge was detained by ICA officials, his passport, ticket and phone confiscated – with no explanation given.

Finally, at 1am, Jorge rang us from inside the terminal. The ICA officials had returned his documents and phone, and he was led to the boarding gate. He was fine, he assured us, and was waiting to board his flight.

Jorge is now back in Mozambique – he has contacted Jolovan with his new telephone number.

It has been three days since he left Singapore and it is highly possible we may never cross paths again, though we can still stay in contact by other means.

I am immensely grateful, to H.O.M.E., for demonstrating the power and importance of perseverance. For taking one man’s life and fight to return home seriously, and not taking “no” (he can’t board the plane) for an answer.

I am also immensely disturbed at the thought of all the fishermen on fishing vessels scattered all over our oceans who may be abused, exploited, and unprotected. How many have fallen overboard and are now “missing at sea”?

The night Jorge left for Mozambique, I had dinner at my parents place, and in the centre of the dining table was a large plate topped with a fried fish. I stared at it, and this fish, eyeballs still intact, stared back.

Whose hands reeled you in, I wondered.

Mission accomplished! Patrick, Jorge and Jolovan at Terminal 1. This photo was taken minutes after Jolovan stepped out of the arrival hall, renewed passport in hand.

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