Countries agree to ease port restrictions for seafarers

Several countries have agreed to relax port and border restrictions for seafarers, declaring that they are key workers.

An estimated 200,000 seafarers remained stranded on vessels, working past the expiry date of their contract. In normal times, approaching 100,000 seafarers a month would be either embarking on new contracts or ending old ones.

A virtual International Maritime Summit was hosted by the UK last Thursday July 9th. Representatives of Denmark, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UAE and the US agreed to open up foreign borders for seafarers and increase the number of commercial flights to speed up repatriation effort, according to a UK government statement.

Lobbying from all sides in the maritime sector had been increasing ever since lockdowns were announced in nearly all of the world’s major trading hubs and ports.

Seafarers will now get international recognition as key workers, which should enable freer movement and quicker repatriation.

Kitack Lim, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization, said that it was “time to act for seafarers. Safe ship operations and crew wellbeing should not be compromised. The humanitarian crisis seafarers face has implications for all of us, for the world economy and for the safety of life at sea and the environment.“

Cruise companies, which have a far higher percentage of ship staff than other merchant ships, have deployed a number of methods to get their staff home, but one advantage they “enjoyed” was that their ships did not have anything else to do. The result was a build-up of cruise ships in Manila Bay, Philippines, after they had been used to take home Filipino staff.

The Philippines government on Friday designated Subic Bay, north of Manila Bay, as a hub for international crew change. The Philippines is one of the major countries supplying workers in the shipping industry.

Other merchant ships in the main were continuing their international routes, the normal plan for which would be to swap crews at major ports, flying the respective crews to the ship and home from it.

Chirag Bahri, director of regions at International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network, said that “what we need is for every country around the world to acknowledge seafarers and allow them to get home. They’re not robots. They need to get home.”

Ship manager Wallem Group Ltd’s CEO Frank Coles said that the company had only been able to fulfil about 20% of their usual crew changes. About 40% of their 4,000 seafarers on vessels had completed their contracts, with 10% having been at sea for more than a year.

Guy Platten, Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Shipping, said that the countries which had agreed to open their borders needed to put into practice the commitments they had made, adding that “governments must now use this summit as a catalyst to implement the solutions the shipping industry has provided, applying the political will needed to put them into practice”.