When countries began shutting their borders in March 2020 in response to COVID-19, thousands of seafarers found themselves stranded at sea, while thousands more were cut off from their main source of income.
According to the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Director, Hieke Deggim, the effect of border closures on seafarers wasn’t really considered.
“Health authorities had taken over in all countries basically and for them, seafarers are not a priority at all,” she told On the Job.
In the months following March 2020, there was a backlog of 400,000 seafarers awaiting a crew change. This backlog meant some seafarers who usually work on ships for a maximum of 11 months, found themselves stuck on board for up to 24 months.
Although the situation improved as travel restrictions eased, the emergence of the Delta variant has delivered another blow to the sector, with 250,000 seafarers now awaiting crew transfer.
Senior Legal Officer from the IMO Jan de Boer described the current situation to On the Job.
“I can tell you that for seafarers, life can be very hard at the moment, and it is also for the people who cannot join their ships. They will become desperate to get income for their families.”
In his role at the IMO, de Boer has assisted many seafarers who have found themselves in desperate situations to get home, including a young woman who was away from her child in Tonga for nine months.
“She was trapped on a cruise ship in the Antarctic, and the bordering countries did not allow for any disembarking. She decided to sail all the way to Europe and that took them three months but she tried to find a repatriation flight back to Tonga and it was impossible.
“After four months, she succeeded in having a flight back to New Zealand but then from New Zealand there was no way of getting to Tonga.”
In the end, it took the IMO intervening to arrange for her to get on a repatriation flight back to Tonga, where she could finally be reunited with her child.
Although a remarkable story, de Boer says it is just one example of “all these individual little nightmares” and shows the toll on seafarers’ mental health.
As well as supporting individual seafarers, the IMO has launched an initiative to have them declared as key workers.
“We have launched a big initiative for countries to declare seafarers as key workers similar to hospital personnel, nurses, doctors, and with that key worker designation, normally comes preferential treatment,” says Hieke Deggim.
The director of the IMO hopes their efforts will be enough to support the workers through the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“Seafarers by the nature of their job are quite a resilient bunch.
“They are used to fending for themselves because travelling around the world is not easy, even in good times, so they are quite resourceful people.
“But they are now reaching the end of their tether because this is difficult. And we are also fearing that this might have an effect on future generations of seafarers, because many people that have gone through this kind of situation, they’ll definitely think twice about continuing their career at sea.”