Stranded sailors: little hope for Christmas at home

Corona traps hundreds of thousands of seafarers worldwide on their ships or in foreign ports – including in Bremerhaven. The burden on crews and families at home is enormous.

By Catharina Spethmann, Radio Bremen

A lively sailors club in the harbor of Bremerhaven in early December – lively for Corona times anyway, as there is usually more to do here at the Sailors Mission “Welcome” club. But because of the pandemic, many seafarers are not allowed to leave their ships.

Ramish from India is happy to be ashore after 54 days at sea. He is sitting at a table with a bottle of beer in hand. These are difficult times, he thinks – and explains that because of the infection risk, they could not get off board at all for weeks: “Every day the same work, the same people, always the same. Always alone on board, always just working, working, working.”

They were all the more looking forward to the evening in the club, says his colleague Francis. He is also from India. He has been working on board for eleven months now. Francis points to another colleague: he’s been on the ship for 13 months. Eight or nine months is normal.

Thomas Reinold, sailor deacon and head of the “Welcome” club, has heard such a thing before, especially in the early days of the corona pandemic. Most of the crews on the ships have since been changed. Nevertheless, “We know that many seafarers around the world are just waiting for the ships, even with contracts running for about six to 12 months.” If they didn’t get off the ship, many would have to take their vacation on board for two months and continue on the ship with their new contract.

Worldwide 400,000 seafarers are detained

The situation is still dire for many seafarers, confirms Sven Hemme of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). The International Maritime Organization (IMO) at the end of September spoke of about 400,000 seafarers trapped on the ships.

Neither Reinold nor Hemme want to accuse the shipping companies of general bad intentions. The shipowners are of course happy if all positions on board are occupied and work is also carried out in Corona times. But it is clear to all that burnt-out and exhausted seafarers pose a security risk, not least. The situation in maritime shipping is currently very difficult for everyone, says Hemme: “There are many who really try. And then of course there are counterexamples.”

Entry ban in many home countries

Even shipping companies attempting to disembark the seafarers often failed due to travel restrictions and constant new regulations. Another problem: there are fewer flights due to the corona pandemic. Francis from India was unable to go home because of this, he says.

ITF inspector Hemme says seafarers are still not allowed to enter their home country. Regulations often prohibit this for fear of infection. Zeeman Reinold remembers an Indonesian sailor who preferred not to return to his family a few months ago. Otherwise his wife, a teacher, would have lost her job.

Crew changes that have already been organized are often canceled. For seafarers, of course, it causes frustration and despair when hopes of returning home are stranded, says sailor-deacon Reinold. That’s “cheeky”.

Family income is lacking

ITF inspector Hemme sees a different problem. In the homelands of seafarers – many of whom are from Asia – the situation is also becoming increasingly difficult. Because there are also sailors stuck ashore who, due to a lack of crew changes, cannot board, although they want to work. The families then miss their money – and not only they. “This is an economic disaster,” says Hemme.

At this point, no one can say when it will get better. He expects that shipping will continue to face enormous problems in the first and probably also in the second quarter, says Hemme. Francis, the sailor from India, expects to be home a long time ago. In ten days he plans to land in Boston, the nearest port, and board a plane home. At least he hopes so.

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