Stranded at Sea: The plight of abandoned seafarers worldwide has been worsened by COVID-19

About 0.1 million stranded seafarers on sea lack clean water, fuel, food and legal help, besides the immigration papers that will help them disembark, or the money that will get them home.

Ian Urbina
| Updated: October 16th, 2020

There are a few factors that contribute to the urgent issue of stranded seafarers at sea. Among them are corporate negligence and political corruption, anaemia 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 oversight and transparency of the industry.

Lacking clean water, fuel and food, not to mention cell service, legal help or the ability to speak the local language, crews such as those in Beirut typically have no money to get home. They don’t even have the immigration papers that will allow them to disembark.

On any given day, hundreds of ships and thousands of seafarers are in the same situation, but this always-acute problem has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As supply chains halted across the globe, the approximately 100,000 seafarers due for crew change each month found themselves stuck in limbo due to closed borders and limited availability of flights.

Countries responded differently to the novel coronavirus, but not one had the seafarers in mind — they prioritised their populations’ health and economic prosperity. 

As a result, the problem for seafarers was at once immediate —  there were 20 cruise ships stranded in Manila Bay, the Philippines, overflowing dormitories and crews that were virtually abandoned around the world. 

The issue kept getting compounded every month, as another set of seafarers reached the end of their contracts.

When the pandemic struck six months ago, less than 35 per cent of crew changes were taking place, according to the International Chamber of Shipping.

Flag states (the jurisdiction under whose laws the vessel is registered) have also been extremely flexible in creating exceptions to international regulation and have permitted extensions of contracts well beyond the limits stipulated in the Maritime Labour Convention. Where seafarers would normally have the right to repatriation after 11 months, it has now been stretched to 17 months. Hundreds of thousands of seafarers face  complete uncertainty as to when they might return home and reunite with their long-suffering families.

The ITF Seafarers’ Trust —  the charitable arm of the ITF, the largest seafarers union —  launched an emergency fund in May to support initiatives to address the impact of COVID-19 on seafarers and to help maintain a certain level of welfare provision. The ITF has made grants in excess of £1.3 million to more that 50 grantees in 28 countries — ranging from support for testing and quarantine facilities, PPE and sanitary provisions in ports and operational support for seafarers centres.

The ITF launched the Still at Sea photography competition in August this year with a number of objectives, the first of which was to create a channel of communication from seafarers to the world ashore. This initiative, wherein they received 2,000 submissions in under a week, featured seafarers in photos detailing their current state at sea — mostly stoical and proud, sometimes humorous, but also frustrated and emotionally drained by the reality of missing family and critical events at home.

This competition sheds light on the deeper issue of maritime abandonment 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.

Despite the pandemic, seafarers around the world continue to sail and keep the world moving. Borders and ports have been locked down, but the seas are open. Thus, Kenneth’s watch continues. Photo: Kenneth Guilaran/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust.
For engineers at sea during the COVID pandemic it is business as usual. Engineers on the MT Iridescent continue with their ship maintenance. Photo: Noel Agustin Gabrido/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust.
On the MT Seamaster IV, a crew member is seen painting the stairs to the bridge deck. Photo: Hernan Sto. Tomas/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust
Kerby C. Seroy takes some time to fish during anchor in Port Walcott, Australia, after a stressful departure from Chinese waters. Photo: Kerby C. Seroy/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust
Tim Isada looks out to the White Cliffs of Dover after a two-week sail from Port Canaveral, Florida. Isada has spent months isolated at sea. “Things will be in place one day. Let’s keep our faith and never lose hope,” he says. Photo: Tim Isada/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust
Stuck aboard their ships for months with expired contracts, many seafarers, including Neil Patrick M. Sison, lean on their faith to accommodate their “deteriorating physical and mental health”. Photo: Neil Patrick M. Sison/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust
Taehwan Kim wishes he could go back and see his family in Indonesia, but must continue his work at sea, as the pandemic spreads across his home country. Photo: Taehwan Kim/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust
Pratigya Arora reminds those on land to not forget about those trapped offshore, the “forgotten corona warriors!” Photo: Pratigya Arora/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust
This photo captured during a loading operation in Salvador, Brazil, an epicentre of the pandemic, shows three stevedores lying on an airbag, observing physical distancing onboard. Photo Credit: Philip Erl Prosperoso/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust
John Mark D. Dulnuan and his shipmates find time to take a candid shot despite heavy delays at sea — “a remembrance of good camaraderie.” Photo: John Mark D Dulnuan/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust.
The global pandemic put a lot of stress on seafarers like Kris. During downtime, all there is to do is to look outside and think. One night, Kris noticed the sea, thinking it was calm and peaceful despite the chaos of this year. “Nature at its finest reminded me that God is in control and good things are coming,” he said. Photo: Kris Bucton/The ITF Seafarers’ Trust

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.