300,000 Sailors Stranded at Sea Amid Global Pandemic

300,000 Sailors Stranded at Sea Amid Global Pandemic

The UN has recently called for the international community to rescue the crews of commercial ships, gas and oil platforms, and other workers out at sea who have been instructed to keep working, without relief, due to Covid-19. 

International maritime transit, 80% of which relies on the transportation of international goods, is under constant threat as the Covid-19 pandemic is delaying the crew turnover of more than 300,000 maritime workers. Due to travel restrictions, multiple crews are stranded ashore – they are not allowed to fly home at the end of their work cycle, nor are they being replaced once those cycles end. This situation is threatening the stability of maritime transit, as the tired crews are more concerned with their current situation than with the security of their cargo. The crews’ preoccupied state leaves the carriers more vulnerable to criminal activity. Moreover, this may also lead to carelessness when it comes to the many potential safety hazards associated with this type of work. 

A maritime Crisis amid the Covid-19 Pandemic

The lockdowns, border closures, visa delays and travelling authorization reduction all threaten the stability of crew turnovers and the continuation of maritime commercial activity. This situation has led to the extenuation  of  contracts that were meant  to end months ago – the longest of which has been extended up to 17 months – noted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). This far exceeds the international work standards, which stipulate a  maximum of 11 months out at sea for maritime workers. 

In response to this situation, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Global Compact and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights have called upon nations to help resolve this problem. The IMO have pushed their agenda to label maritime workers “key workers”, a status that would allow them to circumvent the current international travel restrictions (HCDH). 

A Heavy Weight on Seafarers and the Global Economy

According to VOA News, Captain Hedi Marzougui,, describing the mounting desperation of seafarers who have been afloat for a year or more, pleaded their case during the last week of September at a U.N. General Assembly: “We received very limited information, and it became increasingly difficult to get vital supplies and technical support. Nations changed regulations on a daily, if not hourly, basis.”

After several months of uncertainty, many borders remain closed, preventing any efforts to replace the exhausted crews stuck at sea and forcing employers to extend the crews’  contracts. This situation bears great weight on the mariners’ minds, interfering with their efficacy at sea: “Not knowing when or if we would be returning home put severe mental strain on my crew and myself,” Marzougui said. “We felt like second-class citizens with no input or control over our lives.” 

Confronted with this situation, officials from countries like France, have pursued unilateral management of this crisis. Yet, no international coordination has been developed to ease the crisis, pushing the IMO to call for new rules to protect countries from the virus while supporting  stranded mariners. 

France proposed that the UN compiles a worldwide list of ports that can be secured to accommodate crew changes. Kenya suggested  sharing costs globally to develop  a rapid testing plan for major ports.

Crews often work 12-hour shifts with no days off, and Marzougui warned that extending shifts without a break risks physical and mental strain — potentially putting ships and their workers  in danger.

He compared it to telling a marathon runner at the end of the race that they had to “do it again, right away, with no rest.”

A Risk bearing Situation

Exhausted after months of intense labor, and with the added stress of an uncertain future, the crews have become much less efficient and have not been able to deliver the same standard of security. This situation is problematic on multiple levels. Indeed, multiple weakened crews are still expected to operate on high alert, and in extremely dangerous circumstances – especially for those who have been deprived of relief.  Operations involving offshore gas and oil stations, if mishandled, run the risk of potentially catastrophic safety failures.

On a security level, many of the crews operating are easy prey for pirates and criminals – who are attracted to precious cargo such as valuables, gas and petroleum. Indeed, this situation is correlated with a surge of piracy in traditional hotspots, according to recent reports from the ICC. The resurgence of piracy in the Gulf of Mexico, where the tankers have been concentrated during the pandemic, runs the risk of threatening the long-term policies that aim to effectively reduce piracy in the region. Similar activity has taken place  in the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Guinea, threatening these regions as well. More importantly, the distress and disorganization of international shipping is benefitting criminal organizations. 

Terrorist organisations operating in East Africa such as al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Sunna and the Islamic State in East Africa Somalia (IS-Somalia) are taking advantage of gaps in maritime security in the region, which have been widened  by the impact of Covid-19.  This area is heavily frequented by cargo ships, and this new opportunity for pirates to take control of ports and transit areas could be a way by which these illicit groups intend to gain prestige, as well as disrupting the capacities and legitimacy of local security forces. Moreover, the rise in kidnapping shows a new surge in maritime criminal capabilities, who are now able to devise plans more complex than the usual “hit and go” strategy that had become the norm in recent years. 

Attacks in Cabo Delgado province on Mozambique’s northeast coast have become more of a threat in 2020, as the attackers have started to fund onshore terrorist activities. Such a pattern is likely to develop in other areas, as many countries have reduced their maritime presence due to the pandemic, to concentrate their resources on tackling the epidemic. In South East Asia, the cancellation of maritime activities such as the Balikatan 2020 Exercise in the Philippines, is also likely to be interpreted as an opportunity by criminals looking for weaknesses in the system. It is thus likely that such weaknesses might make those regions more vulnerable if nothing is done. To this day, the lack of initiative taken to adapt to these new security threats at a multilateral level has made  further criminal activities of this kind highly likely. 

Categories: International, Security

About Author

Theo Locherer

Théo Locherer has received a master’s degree in international Relations from the University of Edinburgh. He worked previously as an international development coordinator in Senegal for the Mbour regional Parliament. Before writing at GRI, he was a volunteer risk analyst for Peace Brigade International in France. His focus is on maritime security, more specifically in West Africa and South East Asia.