Seafarers have been cast adrift on a sea of bureaucracy – we need to get them home

Seafarers are our lifeblood. Hidden from everyday view out on the seas and oceans, they work to maintain the arteries of international commerce. More than 90 per cent of world trade is carried in ships. 

Globalisation would be a mere concept without the men and women who, at every hour of the day or night, are there, in often inhospitable waters, bringing us our food, manufactured goods and raw materials.

In this time of pandemic, merchant seamen and women have been central to our efforts to mobilise the NHS and equip medical staff with the protection and tools they need.

Despite the crucial role they play, many of these seafarers have faced huge difficulties in the wake of global coronavirus measures.

The restrictions on international travel imposed by most countries have left thousands of seafarers stranded far from home in foreign ports. Barriers erected to halt the spread of coronavirus mean these men and women have been cast adrift on a sea of bureaucracy, unable to make the journey back to their loved ones.

Some have been confined to vessels for months, their welfare, physical and mental, steadily deteriorating. Yet they have had no contact with coronavirus and pose little if any risk.

And because many of these maritime workers are engaged on fixed-term contracts, they risk losing the protection of these agreements as they come to an end. Short of money, they are blocked from returning home not only by border restrictions but also by cost.

This is why I hosted a conference in London on Thursday aimed at securing international agreement on how to repatriate stranded seafarers at the earliest opportunity, so that participating states recognise crew members as key workers who should be accorded special consideration when crossing borders, allowing them to reach their destinations unhindered.

This is a two-way street: while helping foreign seamen to leave the UK, I also want to help our crews return to these shores.

This summit produced a joint statement recognising this special status and paving the way for crew changes on ships – like cruise liners – that are becalmed in ports by coronavirus.

The UK has led by example. Seafarers are exempt from our quarantine rules for international arrivals, and we are keeping our ports open to seafarers of all nationalities and to vessels of all flags. 

The need is real. Right now, there are more than 1.2 million seafarers at sea, and 200,000 of them have overrun their contracts and are now due to come home, including 2,000 from the UK. We have worked hard supporting employers to repatriate more than 1,500 British mariners already, while helping more than 12,500 foreign seafarers to get home. But we need to do more.

On June 19, inspectors from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is controlled by the Department for Transport, boarded six ships moored in UK ports following concerns about crew welfare. 

Five of these ships, cruise liners languishing in port because of the pandemic, were found to be in breach of international regulations protecting crews and formally detained. I will not hesitate to use these powers again should the wellbeing of crews on other vessels in UK ports be threatened.

Alongside interventions on the global stage, we are taking simple steps to make life more comfortable for seafarers in this position, both now and in the future.

For those still unable to return home, the Government, in partnership with the Merchant Navy Welfare Board and Seafarers UK, is rolling out mobile internet routers – MiFi units – on board ships in UK ports. It’s a small gesture, but will mean a lot to those separated from their families and friends by this crisis.

In addition to the £300,000 we have recently provided for UK charities safeguarding seafarers’ wellbeing, we are supporting the UK’s Seafarer Centres, which provide crew members with a place to relax and find useful information as well as escaping the confines of life below deck.

This great island nation of ours has a proud history of driving progress in the maritime realm. Our seafarers have journeyed to every corner of the world, and we have welcomed those who cross the oceans to visit us here, bringing with them the fruits of far-flung places.

It is only right that we care for them when they have, through no fault of their own, found themselves becalmed and stranded in our ports. And we must help them to make the journeys they so long for after these strange and trying months. Back home, to the embrace of those they love.