By Lydia O’Kane
There are currently 400,000 seafarers at sea not knowing when they will be able to return home to their families.
They remain on board their vessels, despite the fact that their contracts have expired, in many cases months ago.
This present situation, which is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been described by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as a humanitarian crisis at sea.
The Chief Executive of Catholic charity Stella Maris UK (formerly the Apostleship of the Sea) Martin Foley says this is an apt description of the current plight of seafarers.
“I was in touch with a seafarer today, actually from Samoa, who’s been on board since May 2019, almost 2 years on board and desperate to get home.”
There are increasing calls for seafarers to be designated as “key workers” so they can get back to their countries of origin amid the pandemic.
A least 300 NGO’S, companies and trade unions have signed what is known as “the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change” which calls on governments to implement these protocols.
Commenting on the declaration, Mr Foley says it’s very encouraging the way in which this coalition has “come together to call upon governments around the world to recognize seafarers as key workers.”
He is also keen to point out that the vaccinations that people are depending on are brought “to our shores on ships by seafarers, and it seems to me slightly unfair that the very individuals who are transporting these vaccinations to our shores to enable us to resume normal lives are not themselves at the front of the queue for these vaccinations.”
The Stella Maris CEO goes on to say that the fact that our supermarket shelves have continued to be stocked during this pandemic is a testament to the hard work of seafarers.
This is all the more reason, he adds, that they should be recognized as key workers and vaccinated so that they can continue their vital work during this pandemic and transit to and from their countries of origin.
Need for crew changes
According to the International Maritime Organisation “crew changes are vital to prevent fatigue and protect seafarers’ health, safety and wellbeing – thereby ensuring the safe operation of maritime trade.
The body underlines that “They cannot be postponed indefinitely.”
As a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, thousands of seafarers are spending extended periods at sea. This can mean that they are more at risk of adverse health effects, including physical and mental health issues.
The International Labour Organisation points out that “the maximum continuous period that a seafarer should serve on board a vessel without leave is 11 months.” However, due to the pandemic, many seafarers have not be able to disembark their vessels.
“The longer they remain on board after the expiry of their contracts, says Mr Foley, “the greater the likelihood that they will succumb to some sort of either psychological trauma or physical trauma.”
Chaplains amid the pandemic
When at sea, Chaplains are there to give vital support to people in this maritime sector. But as this pandemic continues, Chaplains in some ports have greater difficulty gaining access to crews on board. With that in mind, they are using remote ways to connect with seafarers far from home, such as the telephone, social media and digital messaging.
As thousands of seafarers await the opportunity to disembark their ships, the Chief Executive says, that people too can play their part in supporting these unsung heroes of the pandemic. He mentions, in particular, the power of prayer, and the importance of remembering seafarers when we go to supermarkets to buy the food which eventually ends up on our dinner tables.