I write this piece in the immediate aftermath of a video call with our team in the Philippines. It has been interesting to hear at first hand of the challenges they are facing.
Many seafarers from the Philippines have been very badly affected by the current crisis, with many having to work on beyond the end of their contracts because of the severe difficulties with transit arrangements. Conversely, of course, similar numbers have been unable to join ships, leaving them and their families under severe financial pressure. It is reported that overall more than 150,000 seafarers are now working beyond their contract end. I am pleased to report that intensive lobbying by the maritime industry, and indeed by welfare organisations, including MtS, has made a difference. Numbers of governments have shifted their positions and allowed greater movement of seafarers. In addition, many shipping companies and agencies have worked very hard and very creatively to enable crew change to happen. Yes, some progress has been made but the situation remains serious, with consequent stress on crew and their families.
In the Philippines, in a situation mirrored elsewhere, lockdown has been very strict. That has meant those seafarers who have made it back into the country have often been trapped in Manila, initially quarantined but often unable to get back to homes in the provinces. Hostels have been full and overflowing. Similarly, many cruise ships, having disembarked passengers elsewhere, have travelled to the Philippines to discharge crew, many of whom are losing their jobs. I understand that over 20 cruise liners are already in or off the coast of Manila, with more heading the same way. These crews too have often been stuck on board. Again, I am told that the situation in Manila is beginning to ease and there is a government commitment in the Philippines to get everybody back home in the next few days. In terms of repatriation, this is encouraging, although the loss of work is grim.
The consequent financial issues for families are emerging as a major problem. We await the outcomes. Whatever, all this gives you some indication of the immense challenges and the mountainous uncertainties for seafarers and their families, both now and for the coming months, with implications far beyond the Philippines. In short, many cannot get home, many have been unable to start contracts and many have unexpectedly lost jobs. All face considerable stress, both mental and financial.
I am particularly pleased that our team’s minibus, having been appropriately converted and specially licensed, is providing an excellent service in supporting efforts to get seafarers home at a time when public transport is not available. It has been particularly busy in the last few days and we are looking to add a second bus. The team is working very hard to sustain its support for seafarers and their families at a time of acute need and very great uncertainty. All this, the experience of a single MtS team on the ground, continues to give a strong sense of the immense difficulties faced by seafarers and their families globally – and of the dedicated response we have been able to provide, even when movements are severely limited.
As many countries begin to emerge from lockdown, we are working hard to prepare ourselves to reopen as much of our work as we can, in as many places as we can, as soon as we can. Seafarers need us – and we need to be there for them. The recently published guidelines will help us do that as quickly and as safely as is possible. Again, I thank so many for working so hard and so creatively through this crisis with such a clear focus on providing the best possible care for those we serve. As part of that, “Chat to a Chaplain” continues to provide a very important resource for digital support, with traumatic stories emerging.
I often return to the story of St Paul’s shipwreck. At the end of that story, after the whole party of soldiers, crew and prisoners have staggered ashore having narrowly escaped drowning, they emerge, cold and wet and frightened, onto a strange shore (Malta). There, the locals – the story tells us – showed “unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all because it had begun to rain and was cold”. How vital it is for us to keep those warming fires lit for seafarers and their families as we offer support at this time of uncertainty, fear and storm.