Sailors inmates of the oceans

“There are three sorts of people: those who are alive, those who are dead, and those who are at sea.” (Aristotle)

The ongoing pandemic situation has led to crisis situations from an incredibly wide range of perspectives. One of these induced stalemates is the thorny situations experienced by sailors working for merchant navy companies who were at sea while borders were abruptly shutting down during this way unusual Spring 2020.

On the one hand, harbors became increasingly reluctant to welcome these titans of the oceans or denied them access. On the other hand, air traffic was simultaneously significantly slow down if not downright interrupted. So, oceans suddenly became the biggest custody on Earth, and some sailors were turned into inmates overnight with neither much of a proper trial or a verdict. Then how to cope with being on board of one of these improvised custody facilities, adrift without a certain scheduled date of when you will eventually be able to get relief by setting foot on the ground?

According to an article in the French newspaper Le Monde published in June 2020, “400,000 seafarers have been trapped by the pandemic, whether they hold a maritime certificate or are employed on board. This represents one-fifth of the world’s “seafarers”: 200,000 are waiting to disembark, and 200,000 more are waiting to take over. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa, many States continue to prohibit crew changes, which leads them to turn back their own nationals. […]

This same article written by journalist Marie-Béatrice Baudet is even more insightful: “You realize how sinister all this is,” said Alina Miron, professor of international law at the University of Angers. The goods are loading and unloading without a hitch, but not the crews! And as the days go by, those who are going to get stuck are the most fragile. Filipinos, Madagascans, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Ukrainians, Romanians, Indians, they represent these small people of the sea widely exploited by some unscrupulous shipowners. “The lawyer reminds us that 70% of the merchant fleet sails under flags of convenience. […] Adopted in 2006, an international convention on maritime labor provides for the right to repatriation for any seafarer retained abroad upon expiration of his employment contract, which in any case may not exceed twelve months. One year at sea is already enormous, and which country has respected this commitment, tell me,” said legal expert Alina Miron. The majority of governments have hidden behind the urgency to protect their populations. In reality, many sailors are abandoned. “It should also be noted that the cost of repatriation is the responsibility of the shipowner.”

“Normally, the Marine Medical Consultation Centre (MMCC), attached to the Purpan Hospital in Toulouse, receives 5,000 calls per year. Recently, its lines have been called more frequently. “It’s not war either, we shouldn’t exaggerate, but the coronavirus has kept us busy,” says Emilie Dehours, 38, an emergency doctor. Between the sailors suspected of having contracted Covid-19 and the chronically ill (asthmatics, hypertensives, etc.), at anchor abroad and unable to obtain a renewal of their treatment, “Purpan”, as the sailors say among themselves, has not been idle. […]

Since the beginning of the year, the hospital in Saint-Nazaire, in Loire-Atlantique, has been home to the Resource Center for Psychological Assistance at Sea. Camille Jego, its director, a 32-year-old clinical psychologist, hates the stereotype of the grumpy, burly sailor, insensitive to evil. The women and men she listens to and reassures have very different profiles. “Of course the fear of abandonment exists in this population where young people, unlike their elders, are confronted with the multicultural nature of the crews, which hinders exchanges on board. The social isolation they often complain about becomes a real issue during a crisis like the one we are experiencing today. “ ”

It has been reported by several press articles that experiencing such challenging circumstances in the already rough working and living conditions that are the ones of cargo ship missions is affecting the mental well-being of a non-neglectable proportion of engaged staff in various degrees of seriousness, according to the health specialists cited in these articles. Without these accounts giving also the floor to seafarers accomplishing their missions in this quite deteriorated environment, these stories may well have been unheard from the wider audience. So long lives the journalism who is curious to go off the beaten track!

While it sounds like seafarers have sometimes been left behind and written off in this worldwide disorder, actions undertaken by some structures such as ITF Seafarers’ Trust charity, the charity Sailors’ Society, the Mission to Seafarers, or the NGO Human Rights, to name a few entities, are part of the solution in these tough circumstances. The dedication of seafarers on the one hand and entities supporting them on the other hand should be acknowledged, as are the commitment demonstrated by health professionals and the actions undertaken by armed forces to respond to this cross-border challenge.

Jules Striffler 

Baudet, Marie-Béatrice. 2020. « Les Marins Perdus Du Coronavirus ». Le Monde.Fr. [Accessed September 2nd, 2020].
Whitehead, Kate. 2020. “‘Prisoners At Sea’: Well-Being Of World’S ‘Invisible Workforce’ At Risk”. South China Morning Post.
[Accessed September 2nd, 2020].
Lieutaud T, 2014. National Center for Biotechnology Information,
Opening quote of the movie The Wolf’s Call (2019) directed by Antonin Baudry

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