International Maritime Organization (IMO) Secretary-General Kitack Lim is urging governments to take swift action to resolve the crew change crisis that has left several hundred thousand seafarers stranded at sea and unable to be repatriated despite the expiry of their contracts.
It is estimated that more than 300,000 mariners are stuck at sea, and a similar number of seafarers have been unable to join ships and relieve them due to restrictions imposed by several governments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including restrictions on travel, embarkation and disembarkation in ports, quarantine measures, reductions in available flights and limits on the issuing of visas and passports.
Lim, who has called the situation a humanitarian crisis, expressed concern not only for seafarers’ health and wellbeing, but also for the safety of shipping, as overly fatigued and mentally exhausted seafarers are being asked to continue operating vessels, increasing the risk of shipping casualties. Some seafarers have now been on board their ships for more than 17 months, exceeding the 11-months limit set out in the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC). Many have been denied proper access to medical care and shore leave, in breach of their rights under the MLC and other international instruments.
This week the IMO head issued strong statement ahead of the General Assembly of the United Nations calling on governments in fresh call to action to resolve the crew change crisis.’
“While significant progress has been made by many countries in allowing for crew changes for all seafarers, the rate of progress is not keeping pace with the backlog of ships requiring crew changes,” Lim said.
“Seafarers cannot remain at sea indefinitely,” Lim continued. “If the crew change crisis is not resolved soon, ships will no longer be able to operate safely pursuant to the Organization’s regulations and guidelines, further exacerbating the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Lim said that resolving the crew change crisis will require a “whole of government” approach involving several ministries. He reiterated his call to all Member States to designate seafarers as key workers providing an essential service, and to implement the IMO-approved protocols to allow for safe and secure crew changes. The IMO Secretary-General also insisted on the importance of removing other barriers to crew changes, such as visa and travel restrictions, and of providing seafarers with immediate access to medical care and medical facilities on shore, when needed.
Over the past several months, the IMO has issued numerous top-level statements, held bilateral meetings at a diplomatic level and established the Seafarer Crisis Action team to help stranded seafarers. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has also urged all countries in the world to recognize seafarers as key workers and provide the necessary travel assistance to ensure safe crew changeovers and repatriations.
Lim invited Member States to raise the issue of seafarers and the crew change crisis during the upcoming High-Level Week of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, beginning on September 22. ILO, IMO and the UN Global Compact will host a side event during that week to raise the visibility of the crew change crisis on World Maritime Day, September 24.
“Working together, this challenge to shipping and seafarers can be overcome,” Lim said.