Three Ghanaian fishermen believed to have been rescued from a boat based in Co Down have been put to work in UK waters as part of a deception, the High Court has heard.

Lawyers for the migrants claimed they had been allowed to enter Northern Ireland on the pretext of providing international labour.

The trio, who are not identified, challenge the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPS) for refusing to charge the ship’s owners and captains with trafficking and modern slavery offences.

It is believed to be the first such case in the jurisdiction.

The men are believed to have traveled from Ghana to Northern Ireland in 2011 to work as deckhands on one of the ships based in Kilkeel Harbour.

But later that year they were pulled from the ship and identified as victims of trafficking, according to their legal representatives.

The court heard the men had been permitted to work on the vessel for fishing trips in international waters, with strict limitations on any shore leave in Northern Ireland.

But Dessie Hutton QC argued the boat only operated between Kilkeel and Scotland.

“These are travel or immigration documents that were obtained under a lie,” he said.

“This deception was essential in transiting applicants to Northern Ireland for the purpose of providing labour.”

In 2019, the PPS decided not to prosecute the owners of the boat, a decision confirmed after a review a year later.

Benefiting from anonymity due to their vulnerability, the fishermen say the outcome was irrational, procedurally unfair and failed to consider all available legislative powers.

With two of them still in Northern Ireland, they face the potential threat of deportation if their legal challenge ultimately fails.

A full hearing that was due to start has been postponed amid attempts to secure the discovery of more documents related to the PPS decision.

Lord Justice Treacy instead adjourned the proceedings until November.

Outside court, the fishermen’s lawyer, Sinead Marmion of Phoenix Law, said: “This is an important case for our clients who have suffered horrific treatment at the hands of their employer, which amounts to recognize them as victims of modern slavery.

“We believe that the failure of the PPS to prosecute those who treated our customers like slaves falls well below the required legal standard.”