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‘Humanitarian crisis’ overshadows World Maritime Day

Misery, loneliness and despair are some of the emotions that huge numbers of seafarers are suffering this World Maritime Day.

Described on Tuesday by DNV GL’s maritime ceo, Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, as a humanitarian crisis, and despite the intervention of The Pope and continuous efforts by charities like The Mission to Seafarers, Stella Maris and the Sailors’ Society, more than 300,000 seafarers have now spent up to 17 months on board ship.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Rajesh Unni, ceo and founder of ship manager Synergy Group. “On World Maritime Day, with hundreds of thousands of seafarers still stranded at sea, I think now is the time to address shipping’s inability to consistently shape and direct policies that impact our ability to conduct business safely and efficiently,” Unni said.

 “When we called on governments to help our seafarers and classify them as key workers, our pleadings largely fell on deaf ears.

 “We might be the engine of global trade, but even as a humanitarian crisis has unfolded at sea our voice has not been heard.”

Some are of suicidal intent, according to sources, living on a “board and lodging” basis, unable to send money home to loved ones, or even to communicate with them by telephone or email. They can only imagine the resulting hardship on partners, children and extended families.

Meanwhile, a similar number of seafarers are stuck at home, earning no money, with no prospect of resuming paid work anytime soon. In many of the countries which supply seafarers, there is little, if any, state aid. Their position is almost as perilous. Despite keeping the world’s supply chains running throughout this tumultuous year, seafarers are still not recognised as key workers.

Hull underwriters and P&I Club insurers are increasingly concerned. Despite widespread press coverage, countless webinars on the issue, the engagement of leading shipping companies, ship managers, seafarers unions and the industry’s most august associations including the IMO, the ICS and the ILO, sources say that the political will to tackle the crisis is simply not there.

“There is no joined-up thinking because seafarers have no political clout,” said one insurer. “My fear is that there will be some major casualty sometime soon – another Wakashio perhaps – involving exhausted and world-weary seafarers, that once again gets the issue onto the front pages. But will the blame be laid at the right door? It’s governments and flag states that need to get involved. Right now.”

Representing seafarers from one of the world’s largest labour supplying nations to the international shipping industry, Abdulgani Y. Serang, general secretary-cum-treasurer of National Union of Seafarers of India, said that the treatment of seafarers, highlighted in the Covid-19 pandemic needs to be addressed before sustainable shipping.

“While not taking away the importance of the World Maritime Day, I am of the firm opinion that IMO theme for this year “Sustainable Shipping for a Sustainable planet" is only idealistic in nature, for the feel good factor and smacks of hypocrisy and double standards against the seafarers during the Covid-19 pandemic which National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI) strongly deplores and denounces,” he stated.

“The way seafarers, central to the entire efforts of sustainable shipping, have been and continue to be treated as pariah and inhumanely during the Covid-19 pandemic by the world at large needs to be addressed first and only after that let us speak of sustainability of shipping.”

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