Photo: Seafarers/Illustration; Image by Offshore Energy

IMO: Number of seafarers awaiting repatriation halved, but no room for complacency

The number of seafarers requiring repatriation after finishing their contracts has declined from around 400,000 in September 2020 to around 200,000 as of March 2021, with a similar number waiting to join ships.

The figures are derived from collective industry analysis, according to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said that one of the contributing factors to the decrease was the adoption of the United Nations Assembly resolution calling on UN Member States to designate seafarers and other marine personnel as key workers.

This is in combination with the concerted efforts by governments, shipowners, and others.  

However, Lim warned that there was no room for complacency.

Even though the numbers bring some optimism on resolving the matter, there is a growing concern that this number could grow again, especially as governments continue reintroducing stricter border control and travel restrictions due to new COVID-19 variants.

The crew change crisis is not resolved but has reached a situation where it has been more manageable. However, there is great concern over the increased travel restrictions being imposed by governments in response to new variants. Seafarers must be designated as keyworkers,” said Guy Platten, Secretary General ICS.

“Governments will not be able to vaccinate their citizens without the shipping industry or, most importantly, our seafarers.”

“Unless governments move from the protectionist positions that they’ve been in for over 12 months now, and allow seafarers genuine free movement and prioritization for vaccinations sadly the situation could easily spiral out of control yet again,” said Stephen Cotton, ITF General Secretary.

What is more, due to the impact of the pandemic on the crew change, the industry fears that many seafarers might quit the profession.

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The industry is urging for prioritisation of vaccination for seafarers to prevent a similar scenario from a year ago. In particular as certain states announced the potential introduction of vaccine passports which would further hamper crew changes.

This is extremely important having in mind that in some developing nations seafarers are unlikely to have an opportunity to receive vaccines until July at the earliest.

“Now, more than ever, seafarers need to be designated as key workers to ensure priority vaccination and access to safe transit and travel,” IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said.   

So far, 55 countries and two associate members of the IMO have declared seafarers as keyworkers and more work must be done to ensure crews do not once again become collateral damage in the pandemic. 

Lim insists more countries need to do so to ensure seafarers are treated fairly and so that their travel to and from their place of work is properly facilitated.

“There is still a long way to go before we are back to a normal crew change regime,” he added

“As vaccination is rolled out in many countries, I urge governments to prioritize seafarers in their national COVID-19 vaccination programmes.”   

As explained, governments should also identify and prepare for the challenges of the vaccination of seafarers who spend long periods of time away from their home countries.

IMO’s head pointed out that this was particularly important as any barriers to travel created by national vaccine protocols may further complicate an already difficult crew-change situation.