The recent plight of the MT Iba has highlighted the issue of abandoned seafarers. After two of its anchors broke in a storm, the ship washed up on one of Dubai’s tourist beaches. A hidden horror was made very public. The five crew left abandoned on the vessel had been unpaid for 32 months, living in grim conditions.
The Mission to Seafarers local team, headed by Revd Andy Bowerman, have been proactive in their practical support, and in negotiations for the men to be paid and for them to be released and able to go home. That negotiation came to a successful conclusion this last week, with the crew accepting 70% of the wages due to them. That was very good news, although as I write the crew are still awaiting final exit from the vessel. Andy and his team have recently seen an increase in the number of seafarers they are supporting who have either been formally abandoned or where there are indications that things might be heading that way. Usually, they are dealing with around 60 or 70 active cases in this category. Currently, that has more than doubled. There could be several reasons for this, but the financial implications of the pandemic for some ship owners could be a contributing factor. This is a story that has made the global news. A ship washed up on a picturesque and well-used beach made for some striking photos. The contrast between deck chairs and iced drinks just a few metres away from this rusting vessel, and one hiding an appalling tale of human suffering, caused quite a stir.
Andy has been in demand for his story. Certainly, in the UK, this has been well covered in the national newspapers. I have just heard an excellent interview with Andy on a major Canadian radio station and I believe Australia is lined up shortly. This is a great way for us to play our part in flying the flag for seafarers and in making the invisible visible. It has been encouraging that during the pandemic, many more people in our relatively sea-blind world have become aware of the role of crew in all our lives, of our dependence on them and of some of the challenges they face. Through the MT Iba, one particular difficulty which is still regularly faced by some seafarers has been highlighted. We will continue to work both locally and internationally to respond to abandoned seafarers in the practical ways for which we are so well known, to work with others to resolve cases and to contribute to work designed to bring an end to this scourge.
In these blogs over the last months I have often talked about the pride I have felt in our work during the pandemic. Despite intense difficulties and restrictions, we have sustained a strong service to seafarers, and their families, at a time of intense need, often in very creative ways. We have been working on our statistics for the year and, while these are still incomplete, I was quite amazed to read the story so far, especially given that we only had “normality” for less than three months of the year, far less in some places. Globally, they tell us that during 2020 the Mission’s teams visited 30,576 ships, transported 46,063 seafarers and had 86,996 Centre visits. In addition, 144,612 items of PPE were provided to our frontline teams. All this in addition to all the new ways of service, including the Chat to a Chaplain facility.
Of course, the pandemic is far from over. For seafarers, major issues remain around crew change, shore leave and vaccines. While there has been much progress, local and national fears of virus variants are threatening to halt or even reverse that progress. An efficient rollout of the vaccine to seafarers is essential and much work is ongoing within the industry to facilitate that as soon as is possible. Similarly, many of our teams continue to operate under severe restrictions and many of our local models of ministry remain under severe financial strain. For crew and for their families, as well as for MtS teams around the world, there remains a considerable distance to travel on this particular journey. We continue to be deeply thankful for all who continue to support us through it all, in so many different and deeply generous ways. You are enabling us to sustain work which has never been so vital.