Cooperating to address seafarer abandonment

‘Profound concern’ about a surge in abandoned ships and their crews

By Jan Engel de Boer

Article updated 10th March 2023

“I have been in Egypt’s Adabia (sic) Port for 190 days. The treatment of me and the seafarers here is against human rights,” wrote the Master of the Kenan Mete on December 30, 2020. Vehbi Kara was stranded in the Egyptian port of Adabiya near the southern entrance to the Suez Canal because the owner of his ship had abandoned the crew following a dispute.

The Joint IMO/ILO Database on reported incidents of abandonment of seafarers records the date the Kenan Mete was abandoned as August 2019. On board was a crew made up of 11 from India, six from Türkiye, five from Ukraine and one each from Georgia, the Russian Federation and the Syrian Arab Republic.

The database entry is lengthy as it details the crew’s disagreement with the shipowner – unpaid wages – followed by a complex to and fro between various interested parties including the flag state (Panama), the Egyptian government, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and ILO/IMO as they tried to help the crew and resolve the situation.

Eventually the whole crew except the Kenan Mete’s master was repatriated leaving him, on order of an Egyptian court, alone on board as guardian of the ship.

Delay followed delay. In a desperate email sent to IMO and others on February 4, 2021, Vehbi Kara described the conditions he was enduring.

“I am currently on board alone. There are dozens of mice on the ship, and they’re everywhere… Being alone on a ship is a very dangerous situation… Please help me with this. Otherwise, I am about to go into a crisis because my psychology is very bad.”

By February 10, the emergency generator had failed which meant no electricity supply.

Eventually, after warnings that the master’s health was deteriorating, he was allowed to move to a hotel on February 14 from where he had to make weekly visits to the port authorities. But it was another five months before IMO got word that Mr Kara was finally on his way to Cairo Airport to fly home.

The case is disputed, the seafarers have yet to be paid and the case remains mired in the Egyptian court system.

Abandonment definition

A seafarer is deemed by IMO/ILO to have been abandoned when ties between them and the shipowner have been severed. This might be the result of a failure by the shipowner to fulfil certain fundamental obligations, for instance, payment of outstanding remuneration, timely repatriation or the provision of adequate food, accommodation or medical care.

Many cases of abandonment are the result of a deliberate and calculated act by a shipowner. The motivations are many and varied but often financial problems are at the root of it. Or, if their vessel has been classified by the authorities as unseaworthy, rather than fixing it the owner chooses to simply walk away.

But such a decision is not just a case of abandoning the ship itself. Those on board, often thousands of miles from home and having been away from their families for many months, are left without the basic necessities of life: food and drinking water, safe accommodation, money, or any way to get safely home.

Imagine the stress of being stranded in a foreign port, or possibly even at sea, on a ship where perhaps there’s no fuel to keep the generator running and therefore no lighting or heating, no way of cooking hot food, and with supplies of fresh water to drink running out. You may not have been paid for some months – not being paid for at least two constitutes a case of abandonment – nor have any way of contacting your family to tell them of your plight.

For more than 20 years, IMO has been working closely with ILO to look after seafarers who find themselves in such situations. The first IMO/ILO guidelines on abandoned seafarers were adopted by the IMO Assembly and ILO governing bodies in 2002. These recognised officially – and for the first time – the seriousness of the problem and urged Member State governments to ensure shipowners complied with the guidelines.

Over the years, these guidelines became statutory law to give greater protection to those who find themselves stranded. In 2017, for instance, amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) entered into force which require ship owners to have in place insurance to cover the costs of repatriation and payment of at least four months’ wages of abandoned crews.

Just one of too many

The Kenan Mete is just one of 109 ships recorded in 2022 on the Joint IMO/ILO Database on reported incidents of abandonment of seafarers. The database was established in 2005 as a way of monitoring, and being transparent about, the problem of abandonment. The database includes details of the ship, the flag under which it is registered, and where and when it was dumped. It also notes the number and nationalities of the crew, whether the case is resolved, unresolved or disputed, and provides updates on what actions have been taken to try to solve each case.

The practice of logging all cases reveals a very worrying increase in cases of seafarer abandonment in recent years. Since 2005, a total of 713 ships have been registered on the database, involving 9,971 crew. But 40% of those cases have occurred in just the last three years. The number of notified cases more than doubled between 2019 (40) and 2020 (85), with a continued increase year-on-year since then (95 in 2021; 109 up to December 23, 2022).

What is behind this escalation? Perhaps, at least in part, it is due to better reporting of incidents. But the dates also suggest a link to the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly, shipowners and mariners were faced with major difficulties as countries across the world locked down. At one point in 2020, more than 900,000 seafarers were stranded across the globe because of the problems of getting relief crews to ships, and in repatriating those already on board.

However, we know that in 2020, as the virus spread across the world, only 20 of that year’s 85 notifications on the database were said to be related to the pandemic. In 2021, no such direct connection was reported in any of the 95 cases logged. That is not to say, of course, that the wider ongoing impact of Covid-19 on the shipping market and, in turn, how that has affected shipowners’ financial positions, isn’t part of the problem.

Growing worries

IMO is profoundly concerned about the surge in abandoned ships and their crews. In response, we worked closely with ILO to devise new guidelines which have been recently adopted. They are designed to improve co-ordination between government authorities, and to strengthen the obligations on shipowners to provide financial security for crew members through official verification of those measures at least annually. The aim is to resolve instances of abandonment far more expeditiously, including making sure that seafarers are paid and repatriated home to their families.

The new guidelines set out procedures to be taken by Member States if a shipowner fails to fulfil their obligations to arrange and cover the cost of repatriating their crew, outstanding wages and the provision of essential needs, including medical care.

IMO strongly urges Member States to ratify and implement all international agreements that put in place agreed support for anyone who has been stranded on board a ship. Everyone must play their part in protecting crews from abandonment and exploitation.

The latest, more stringent, IMO/ ILO Guidelines strengthen measures that already exist. I am confident they will prove to be an important tool in resolving cases more promptly. I believe they will make a real difference and contribute, hopefully, to a reversal in that increasing number of incidents of seafarers who find themselves abandoned.

Jan Engel de Boer is senior legal officer at the Legal Affairs Office of the Legal Affairs and External Relations Division of the International Maritime Organization. Mr De Boer is responsible in the IMO Secretariat for the issue of abandonment and fair treatment of seafarers. He is also a leading member of the IMO Seafarer Crisis Action Team.