Who Watches Out for the Seafarers and Their Families?

missing seafarers

Published Jun 23, 2015 7:04 PM by Wendy Laursen

Maritime writer John Guy recalls the time when he was second mate on a small general cargo ship. He’d been at sea for five years when he learnt the seafarers’ lesson: “No one gets the better of the sea.”

He was on deck securing a cargo of bulldozers when the ship suddenly plunged downwards, dropping like a lift into the trough in front of a huge wall of dark water. “Before I'd realized what was happening, the bow dug in with a solid crash and the wave toppled over onto the ship, burying the foredeck completely.

“I didn't have time to grab anything before the crest of the wave plucked me off the hatch. The sea was roaring down the deck, covering the hatches, bulldozers and mast houses completely. The huge force of the water tumbled me over and over down the deck. I felt myself smashed against the ship's side rail and just managed to grab and hold on as the wave threw me overboard. I couldn't think or breathe; I didn't feel any pain. I was just holding on for all I was worth.”

John Guy was lucky to survive his encounter with the sea, an example of just one of the dangers that seafarers routinely face.

Another is the threat of piracy.

Chirag Bahri, Regional Director for South Asia of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme, was recently awarded at IMO for his role in caring for less fortunate seafarers, those taken by pirates. Among his achievements, Bahri was instrumental in the adoption of the Maritime Labour Convention in 2006, but he received the IMO award for his work in supporting seafarers in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who were survivors of piracy.

Bahri was instrumental in providing support to the crew, and their families, of merchant vessel MT Asphalt Venture following their release last year after more than four years in captivity.

He also personally oversaw the rehabilitation of crews of the Albedo, Iceberg 1 and Royal Grace in South Asia. In these cases, Bahri provided assistance to the seafarer’s families during the time their loved ones were held captive.

Bahri is a survivor of piracy himself. Unlike the 26 high-risk hostages from the Naham 3 who remain missing and in pirate captivity in Somalia today, more than three years after the initial hijacking of their ship, Bahri is fortunate enough to now be free.

Oceans Beyond Piracy’s latest report cites a chronic under-reporting of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. “We have observed that up to 70 percent of piracy-related incidents in the Gulf of Guinea are never reported,” says Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the International Maritime Bureau. This makes it difficult to assess the extent of the threats seafarers face in this region, he says.

Despite this, there is a perceived reduction in the threat of piracy which has resulted in more foreign fishing vessels returning to areas close to the coast of Somalia. Alan Cole, Head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Maritime Crime Programme, notes, “These provocations are similar to those that triggered piracy off the coast of Somalia in the first place. We are already seeing an upturn in regional piracy incidents since the beginning of the year.”

A new threat to seafarers is emerging, and, like piracy, it is a human threat rather than a threat associated with the elements of nature. It is that of taking criminals or militants on board as seafarers work to rescue migrants from unseaworthy, overcrowded vessels in the Mediterranean and in Asia.

To assist owners, seafarers and private maritime security companies dealing with this situation, Human Rights at Sea, a U.K. charity, has recently released the first international guidance titled “Deprivation of Liberty at Sea,” which gives details of how to safely and legally handle suspected criminals during a transit, as well as defining the roles and responsibilities of all involved in an incident of deprivation of liberty.

Human Rights at Sea also has an on-going and well-supported international initiative to record cases of seafarers and fishermen missing at sea. Before the establishment of the Missing Seafarers Reporting Programme, there was no international platform or statistics kept on the number of people missing from the ranks of the 1.5 million registered seafarers worldwide.

The charity has conceived and delivered an online database with industry and private funding that aims to fill that gap. It is available to families, flag and port authorities, shipowners and managers, and Human Rights at Sea will support and, where able, undertake investigations into specific cases of abuse, injury and death at sea.

John Guy was lucky, unlike the third officer of Cassiopeia Star, Bondar Oleksandr, who disappeared while his vessel was underway from Spain to Constantza, Romania. The missing seafarers’ register has records for Oleksandr and another 60 missing seafarers and fishermen. This is just the beginning of understanding the extent of the problem, says David Hammond, CEO and Founder of Human Rights at Sea.

A recently publicized case demonstrates the ongoing nature of seafarers going missing at sea. Three crew members died or disappeared over a six-week period from the Sage Sagittarius in 2012. Cesar Llanto, 42, disappeared overboard as the vessel approached Australian waters. Chief Engineer Hector Collado, 57, died as a result of an 11-meter (36-foot) fall on board the bulk carrier, and Japanese superintendent Kosaku Monji was crushed to death on a conveyor belt.

The case of Monji is now closed with no clear resolution achieved over the suspicious nature of his death. Australia is currently holding an inquest into the other two deaths, but so far the causes remain mysterious and suspicious.

Hammond believes that seafarers’ basic human rights remain vulnerable, that there is a lack of education across the maritime environment, and that more focus must be placed on shipping companies’ corporate social responsibility towards the individual. He cites a Crewtoo survey published in March that asked the question: “Do people care about seafarers human rights?” 65 percent responded “No.”

The ongoing Nautilus survey asks, “Do you think the International Maritime Organisation is failing to regulate shipping properly?” and has already recorded over 80 percent agreement. The separate Human Rights at Sea survey, which asks, “Are the human rights of seafarers and fishermen properly understood and well protected?” has recorded over 80 percent of respondents stating “No.” This says much about how seafarers view the support shown by employers and representative bodies alike, says Hammond.

“More worrying is the trend by some shipping bodies and individuals in perpetuating the common myth that the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 is a human rights convention that provides all the protections required for seafarers’ human rights. This provides a false sense of security to seafarers covered by the Convention and highlights at best a misinterpretation by professional bodies and individuals in positions of influence,” said Hammond earlier this year.

As well as renewed action relating to the human element at IMO, Hammond believes a new strategic approach to corporate inclusion of maritime human rights in daily business is urgently required. As the industry celebrates the Day of the Seafarer on June 25, Human Rights at Sea, a supporter of the event, believes that even more needs to be done to protect the seafarers and fishermen whose work takes them into the face of danger every day. - MarEx

Read John Guy’s story (Part 1 and Part 2).

Read more about Chirag Bhari here.

Read more about deprivation of liberty here.

Read more about the Sage Sagittarius here.

See the Missing Seafarers Reporting Programme here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.