What happened in Lebanon is rooted in a deeper problem of maritime abandonment of ships, seafarers and cargo. Vessel owners and operators walk away from their responsibilities with impunity.
Hidden behind the tragedy of the deadly explosion a few weeks ago in Beirut is a dark and pervasive travesty that began in 2013 and explains how the 2,750 tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate ended up in that fateful portside warehouse.
This perhaps more important story sheds light on the deeper problem of maritime abandonment of ships, seafarers and cargo, and the factors that make it so easy for vessel owners and operators to walk away from their responsibilities, usually with impunity, and often with life-or-death consequences for the crew that gets left behind.
Lebanese investigators now speculate that fireworks, stored near the flammable dunes of powdery chemical housed in Hangar 12, triggered the explosion that sent a shockwave, levelling buildings and shattering windows throughout the city. This killed at least 190 people, injured more than 6,500 and left about 300,000 others homeless. The blast was so powerful, it created seismic waves equivalent to a magnitude 3.3 earthquake, and was reportedly heard and felt in Cyprus, more than 240 kilometres (km) across the eastern Mediterranean.
But the real causes of this explosion stem from slower-moving and less dramatic factors — corporate negligence and political corruption, anaemic enforcement by shady flag registries that are supposed to hold shipowners accountable, tightened immigration controls that routinely trap stranded crews on decrepit ships, lax rules and a maritime bureaucracy designed more to protect the anonymity and secrecy of ship owners than to enable transparency in the industry.
This broader story begins on the Rhosus, a barely-seaworthy, Russian-owned ship flagged to Moldova that transported tonnes of the volatile and odorless crystalline substance from Georgia to Mozambique in 2013. Manned by 10 Ukranians and one Russian, the rusty freighter was stopped by Lebanese port authorities who deemed the vessel unsafe to continue its journey.
Refusing to answer urgent calls from the crew or port authorities, the ship’s Russian owner Igor Grechushkin was soon confronted with heavy fines, including roughly US$100,000 in back wages and port fees. In response, Grechushkin did what many shipowners do. He cut his losses, declared bankruptcy and quietly disappeared, abandoning his workers, the dilapidated ship and its deadly cargo.
That Grechushkin could disavow his duties so easily is a consequence of the labyrinthine elements of maritime law and administration, and the distinctly transient and trans-national nature of the industry. Lebanaese authorities were hard-pressed to arrest Grechushkin or seize his property, since he lived in Cyprus, and his company Teto Shipping Ltd was registered on the Marshall Islands.
Meanwhile, the men left onboard the Rhosus found themselves in a bind that is surprisingly common for seafarers around the world. Lacking clean water, fuel or food, not to mention cell service, legal help or the ability to speak in the local language, these men neither had the money to get home nor immigration papers that would allow them to disembark.
On any given day, hundreds of ships and thousands of seafarers are in the same situation. Port officials like those in Beirut have little power to repatriate abandoned crews or ships left behind. Usually, the cargo gets sent to its rightful owner because it travels with insurance, but the men who work on board are rarely as lucky.
The plight that befell the crew of the Rhosus is illustrative. After several weeks of being stuck in port, the majority were safely repatriated. But the captain and three of the crew were forced to stay aboard for the next year, as immigration restrictions prevented them from heading home. During this time, these men warned Lebanese authorities that the ship’s cargo posed a serious safety risk to them and the public. On September 14, 2014, the final Rhosus seafarers made it home, with help from their lawyers and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which is the largest global seafarers union.
The problem of abandoned ships rarely gets public notice. But, over the past six years, while reporting on crimes at sea, I’ve stumbled across hundreds of them. Take, for instance, the 16 men stuck on Zoya 1, a supertanker that was trapped off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in April 2018 for over a year; they were owed more than four months’ salary. Languishing on board a ship overrun with vermin, the men slowly fell apart, physically and mentally. Unable to disembark, several of the men who were unable to swim tried to end their lives by jumping overboard. In a photo taken at the time, crew members held signs that said, “We are helpless. We did not commit any crime.” The crew was repatriated in June 2018.
Such cases are not uncommon. A database created by the ITF and international labour section of the United Nations indicates that nearly 5,000 seafarers were abandoned on their vessels in nearly 400 separate incidents between 2004 and 2018. On any given day, more than a million seafarers, mostly migrants from poor countries, work on 55,000 ships, globally. While on board the ships, the crews are truly divorced from much of the protections enjoyed by most workers in on-land industries, and are at the mercy of decisions passed down by port officials and managers, shipping companies, and immigration authorities.
“Food, water, oil,” said Ben Bailey, director of advocacy for The Mission to Seafarers. “It’s difficult for us to get supplies to these men.” He added that the problem of abandonment has become more severe during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, as global maritime commerce ground to a halt. In June, the United Nations called upon maritime governments to allow hundreds of thousands of seafarers stranded in ports due to COVID-19 travel restrictions to safely change over to other ships or return to their home countries.
“The ITF has been receiving emails from hundreds of seafarers daily, expressing their concern about contracts being extended under duress,” said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the ITF. In May, Guy Platten, General Secretary of the International Chamber of Shipping, described the abandonment of ships and seafarers as a “ticking time bomb.”
In the Port of Beirut, for example, not far from the warehouse that exploded, an oil tanker called Captain Nagdaliyev was abandoned with 13 seafarers on board. When the vessel was inspected on July 20, 2020, the crew had not been paid in six months and it lacked clean drinking water. These men were on board their ship during the explosion; it ripped off a door from their vessel, before they escaped to safety.
As the explosion made it clear, such abandonment is not just a concern for workers in ports or on ships but also for the wider public. What happened in Beirut has turned global attention to another and potentially worse crisis emerging elsewhere in West Asia.
The FSO Safer, a tanker formerly used as a floating oil storage facility, was abandoned off the coast of Yemen after its Yemeni owner stopped operations due to the armed conflict that began in 2015. Located in one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, this floating bomb is located kilometres offshore, but its explosion could cause massive environmental damage and impede marine traffic travelling through the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal.
Similarly, environmentalists and union officials have warned of a possible disaster tied to an abandoned ship 13 miles off the coast of the Philippines in Manila Bay. A crew of 15 has been stuck on Spanish tanker MV Celanova since February 2 this year. Loaded with liquid petroleum gas, the tanker lacks enough fuel to keep the cargo refrigerated and port officials warn there is an imminent risk of fire.
Internationally, there are strict rules mandating that ammonium nitrate should not be stored near fuels or sources of heat. In the United States, regulations over ammonium nitrate were tightened significantly after the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1995 in which 168 people died.
Lebanese port officials, on the other hand, had their hands tied in dealing with the highly explosive material left floating in their waters. Grechushkin’s silence made it especially difficult for these authorities to auction off the ammonium nitrate left on the ship. At some point between July 2014 and October 2015, the ammonium nitrate was moved to the portside alongside the country’s main north-south highway, where it remained until the catastrophic explosion.
There is no shortage of blame to share for what happened in Beirut. Surely, corruption and ineptitude within the Lebanese government played a role. Customs authorities repeatedly tried to get permission from local judges to allow them to seize so they could export the ammonium nitrate or hand it over to the Lebanese Army rather than store it dangerously in the port warehouse. Their urgent letters went unanswered for years.
Globally, port officials have a tough time preventing the abandonment of ships or seafarers, partly because of the opaque way in which the shipping industry polices itself. For centuries, the world’s merchant fleets flew the flag of the country of their home port. That country was responsible for ensuring the proper treatment of the crew and safety of the vessel. This began to change in the early 20th Century with the emergence of “open registries,” also called “flags of convenience.”
The company collecting fees for the right to fly a certain flag is also responsible for policing its customers, ensuring they abide by safety, labour, and environmental rules, and investigating when things go wrong. But in practice, flags of convenience create a perverse incentive for ship operators to shop around for the most lax registries with the lowest prices and fewest regulations.
The Rhosus, for instance, was flagged to Moldova, which, at least since 2013, has been on a black list that is run by Paris MoU, an international naval organisation that monitors and regulates maritime traffic in European waters. The organisation labelled Moldovan-flagged ships as “medium to high risk” due to the number of times their ships have been inspected or detained in the past three years.
The media is also complicit. Dramatic disasters like the deadly Beirut explosion reflect acute problems and typically grab press attention. Slow-motion tragedies and bureaucratic crimes of neglect like those that preceded the Beirut explosion rarely get covered, even though the ruinous impact is often as severe. When abandoned seafarers do make it home, they usually face crushing debt due to unpaid wages and the money they borrowed to get this job at sea. Their maritime licenses expire, and they are often also blacklisted by local employment agencies that control access to jobs.
Speaking with reporters after the explosion, US President Donald Trump cited the cause as likely a bomb. Early speculations hinted at Israel targeting an attack of a nearby weapons depot belonging to Lebanese political party and militant group Hezbollah, but the Israeli government denied any involvement.
Lebanese investigators now say that gross criminal negligence, not terrorism, is more likely to blame and that the ignition source was potentially fireworks stored nearby. “Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,” Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab said (he has since resigned from his post).
Still, the deeper problem that will likely get less attention is how to handle shipowners who walk away from their ships and crews. “We need to see greater enforcement of the abandonment amendments contained in the Maritime Labor Convention,” said Bailey from Mission to Seafarers, referring to the set of workplace protections for seafarers, recognised by more than 90 countries.
In 2017, partly motivated by bad press and union pressure, the shipping industry came together in an unprecedented fashion and tried to confront the tendency to abandon seafarers. The industry imposed a new rule requiring shipowners to carry insurance to cover the costs of sailors marooned in port. Unfortunately, most of the smaller and older vessels that are most likely to strand mariners are not required to carry such insurance under this new rule.
Ian Urbina, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times, is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organisation based in Washington, D.C., that focusses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea.