FOCUS: Hundreds of seafarers held captive off UAE coast

It is the hidden humanitarian crisis in the underbelly of the MENA supply chain, hundreds of mariners from South Asia and the Philippines are being held captive by their employers in UAE waters.
There are dozens of cargo ships anchored off the UAE coast with desperate and abandoned crew aboard.
There are dozens of cargo ships anchored off the UAE coast with desperate and abandoned crew aboard.

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There are at least 100 seafarers (that the Indian Consulate in Dubai is aware of) stranded in the waters of the UAE, without food or clean water, aboard crippled cargo ships-turned-ovens in the scorching summer heat.

The Indian Consulate General in Dubai is aware of these 97 men aboard 22 merchant vessels, because they reached out to their country’s government in a desperate plea for help after waiting months for salaries that have not been paid, food and fuel supplies that never came, and release documents that were never issued.

Citing the Indian Consul General of Dubai, Vipul, the Gulf News said that the number of distress calls from Indian sailors stranded in UAE waters had hit its peak this summer. "We are currently dealing with cases of 22 ships. There are 97 Indians aboard these vessels," the diplomat said.

Industry observers say that the situation is a real humanitarian crisis.

"The situation on some of these ships is really pathetic,” Girish Pant, an Indian social worker, who has been closely working with the consulate in aiding the stranded sailors, told Gulf News. “Without fuel to operate the generator, they are suffering a lot in this scorching summer heat."

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"I would like to request authorities to take strict action against such companies' owners and agents. Most of them are not showing any humanitarian consideration to these sailors who have been stuck without salaries, food and water,” he added.

Though the exact number of crew members belonging to other nationalities is not available with the Indian Consulate, the mission said there are sailors from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Myanmar and Pakistan also on these ships.

"Outstanding salary, non-availability of food, fresh water, fuel, harsh living conditions and no sign-off after the contract period are the major concerns voiced by the sailors," the mission said.

The majority of the sailors have complained about not being paid by their employers for several months. Those few that have been paid are unable to access their money as they are stranded at sea, unable to come ashore or fly home without the sign off of the shipping company.

The Indian Consulate has helped repatriate 36 sailors from six ships - MV Gulf Pearl, MV Ayah, Enjaz 2, MV Salem, MVRock and Al Hamad 1 - in the past few weeks, according to Gulf News.

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In some cases, the Consulate has been providing food, water and even fuel for generators so the sailors can recharge of their mobile phones.

Vipul said the mission had been taking up the issues of the stranded sailors, case by case, with the relevant authorities, but stressed that the consulate’s powers in these matters was limited.

"We alone cannot solve their problems, especially related to their pending salaries," he said.

He also urged Indian seafarers to conduct proper checks on the credibility and financial status of shipping companies before joining them to avoid such situations.

The humanitarian crisis in the Arabian Gulf is an ongoing one, with reports of such situations dating back into the early 2000s, but it became more widespread following the 2008 financial crisis and the more recent shipping crisis that has been many shipping companies declare bankruptcy.

These are primarily small to medium-sized ship owners, so the issue receives little media attention, but the impact of a shipping line bankruptcy on the health and safety of crew at sea was brought starkly to light last year when Hanjin Line collapsed.

More than 80 Hanjin container ships were unable to enter port when creditors refused to deal with Hanjin, leaving hundreds of crew members in limbo.

Because of the fragmented nature of the shipping industry, efforts to help sailors stranded at sea in this way can be very complicated for authorities. Most of the sailors stranded in the Arabian Gulf were hired by shipping agencies located in the Middle East and India, working aboard ship’s owned by separate owners and operated by a different company.

The number of small to medium-sized shipping companies declaring bankruptcy skyrocketed in 2015, but fell by 16% between 2016 and 2017, according to insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty SE (AGCS).

“While the downward loss trend is encouraging, there can be no room for complacency," says Baptiste Ossena, global product leader hull and marine liabilities, AGCS. "The shipping sector is being buffeted by a number of interconnected risks at a time of inherent economic challenges."

According to the review, bankruptcies are rising and there are an unprecedented number of shipping lines on the ragged edge.

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