On Wednesday, Pope Francis released a video message expressing solidarity with thousands of seafarers who are stranded on board due to the COVID-19 shutdown.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) estimates that 200,000 seafarers are currently on board past the expiration of their contracts due to COVID-19-related restrictions. With extensive limitations on international air travel and shore access for seafarers, crew changes have become exceptionally challenging to complete in the coronavirus era. As a result, thousands of mariners are carrying on month after month, with no way to disembark and no relief in sight. On Tuesday, IMO secretary general Kitack Lim said that some seafarers are now in their 15th month on board, well past the maximum permitted by regulations.
“These are difficult times for our world, for we have had to deal with the suffering caused by the coronavirus. Your work as maritime personnel and fishermen has thus become even more important since it is providing our greater human family with food and other primary needs,” said Pope Francis. “You have had to make, and are continuing to make, many sacrifices: long periods spent aboard ships without being able to disembark, separation from families, friends and native countries, fear of infection. All these things are a heavy burden to bear, now more than ever. . . . Know that you are not alone and that you are not forgotten.”
A small number of nations – like Singapore, Cyprus and Canada – have made special provisions for crew changes in an attempt to resolve the crisis, but most have not. The IMO, the International Labor Organization, the International Chamber of Shipping and many other organizations have called on all nations to treat seafarers as “critical workers” and allow them to transit to and from their assigned ships.
On Monday, the ITF said that it supported seafarers’ right to stop work and demand repatriation after the expiration of a contract. “If getting seafarers off these ships causes chaos in supply chains, if ports back up from Singapore to San Francisco . . . then that is on the heads of politicians, not the world’s seafarers,” said ITF general secretary Steve Cotton. “Seafarers have done our part in this pandemic, and plenty more. Enough is enough.”
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