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HRAS: Unprecedented Surge in Cases of Seafarers Seeking Help amid Coronavirus Crisis

There has been a dramatic surge in the number of cases of seafarers seeking assistance in overcoming their circumstances onboard ships exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Seafarers are being retained on vessels after sign-off, left ashore in foreign countries unable to return to their families without funds, and not having sufficient information being passed to them as port authorities ban crew change-overs and limit the movement of foreign nationals in their territories as they combat the spreading of the coronavirus.

The UK-based charity organization Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) said on Monday that despite the engagement of ICS, ITF, and Intermanager in addressing the matter, the flow of cases into the charity, particularly from Indian seafarers, has been unprecedented.

To remind, the ITF has called on governments to recognize the vital role of seafarers in this extraordinary crisis, and treat them as ‘key workers’, regardless of nationality.

“In just four hours, 24 cases came into the NGO from seafarers seeking to raise greater awareness of their circumstances,” HRAS said.

The seafarers are reporting an increasing trend of non-payment of wages, contract extensions without informed consent, crews being left in foreign states to pay hotel bills and to seek flights home using their own funds.

“Many seafarers who have contacted the charity understand the gravity of the global pandemic, but the flow of information to them is making them feel even more isolated,” HRAS added.

“Most concerning is the apparent lack of direct engagement with seafarers to keep them informed and updated, and therefore to be able to be part of decision-making process involving their employment, personal liberty and access to their families.”

Commenting on the ongoing situation and its impact on seafarers, Capt. Pradeep Kumar said seafarers are suffering the most especially where the crew changes are not allowed by the port authority.

“It is making seafarers mentally sick and which is going to lead to accidents. At most of the port, the seafarer can disembark but need 14 days quarantine,” Capt. Pradeep Kumar added.

“Ships are running and calling [at] port regularly with [the] Pilot on board. Nobody talks about danger[s] of COVID infection to [the] pilot or seafarer because it is business. Regular cargo operation is going on with shore staff on board. Nobody talks about danger[s] of COVID infection and 14 days quarantine, because it is business. Regular stores and spares are being supplied on board. Nobody talks about danger[s] of COVID infection because it is business.”

Numerous ship registries and unions are calling on the designation of seafarers as key transport workers as they play an essential role in moving goods, fuel, medicine, equipment, and critical supplies to places in need.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), one of the world’s largest maritime registries, with more than 4,700 vessels and nearly 100,000 seafarers serving on RMI-flagged vessels, said it had received a number of complaints from operators and individual seafarers stating that the prevention of repatriation is adding to their emotional stress and adversely affecting their well-being.

“While the maritime industry, by necessity, has been forced to accept the extension of seafarer employment agreements and contracts, such measures may affect the fair treatment and rights of seafarers, as well as potentially disrupt commerce,” the registry said.

“The technical complexity of ships and the hazardous environments they operate in require the professionalism of officers and crew to ensure the safety of the vessel, its cargo, and the seafarers on board. Extended service on board, coupled with the stress about COVID-19 and its effects on them and their families at home, may result in safety being compromised on board. The ability to plan and carry out a crew change is essential to maintain the continuity of shipping and the supply of essentials. The health and safety of seafarers must remain a top priority.”

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