Abandoned

Panic gnawed at Rajesh’s stomach. Its pangs had become almost indistinguishable from the hunger pains and constant nausea, brought on by too many days drinking rain water filtered through a well-used cloth.

Rajesh

Just a few months ago, he’d boarded his ship a proud young captain, buoyed by the prospect of a regular salary to send to his wife Janet and nine-month-old son in Mumbai, as he and his crew transported crude oil from the UAE to Iraq.

But the salary had never materialised, and now the ship was their prison.

Like many Indian seafarers looking for work, Rajesh had paid a hefty sweetener to an agent to secure his job. The loans he had taken to do this were now in arrears, the interest rates spiralling.

Abandoned crew appeal to the former Indian external affairs minister for help

Abandoned crew appeal to the former Indian external affairs minister for help

We r stranded… not get paid plze help. All sleepless nights/days we passed by pumping out water from ship holes. If we halt for 1day the ship will sink for sure because
 we are pumping water every single minute.

He and another 40 crew were stranded on board a small flotilla of ageing ships, anchored five miles off the UAE coast. The shipping company refused to secure the necessary permissions to enable them to enter the port, or to listen to Rajesh’s pleas to send them home.

As the months went by, the men tried to stay strong for their families, but their sense of desperation was increasing by the day.

Rajesh and his friends are by no means alone

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Cases of ship
abandonment since
the start of 2017

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) – the UN agency which sets international labour standards – has recorded 103 cases of ship abandonment since the start of 2017.

The majority of these ships had between eight and 20 seafarers on board – though there was one case of more than 190 seafarers stranded off the coast of Shanghai, without pay for three months.

As well as unpaid wages, a number of the seafarers reported appalling conditions, from no food or water on board to holes in their ships and crew needing medical treatment.

Ship abandonment since the start of 2017

The ILO’s database also records the nationalities of the seafarers involved, with the most frequent nationalities including countries with large regions of deprivation such as India, Ukraine, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and Syria

Sandra Welch, COO of Sailors’ Society, explains.

“Many seafarers caught up in abandonment come from some of the world’s most deprived communities and look for jobs at sea as a route out of poverty.

“They’re particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous manning agents or shipping companies, who place them on dangerous vessels, pay them a pittance or withhold their wages and have no interest in their welfare.”

It’s one of the issues that Society’s Crisis Response Network responds to, helping both the stranded seafarers and their families back home.

One of the crews we have been supporting is the PSD2, which has been abandoned off the coast of southern Africa since 2015.

Two of the men on board, captain Asmael Alsarwt and oiler Seyed Nasr Soltan, haven’t been paid since.

They both have children – Asmael’s are just four and five years old – but they fear that if they leave the ship to return to their families they will never see the money they are owed.

Their colleague, Bangladeshi Mohammed Jahangir Alam, had no choice but to leave the vessel when his wife lost her fight against cancer.

Sailors’ Society repatriated him and is helping him piece his family’s life back together.

Sadly, he didn't make it home for her funeral.

Back in South Africa, we’ve been visiting Asmael and Seyed every week, giving them essentials including food, fishing equipment and medicine, and arranging a replacement passport when Asmael’s expired.

Crisis Response Network

Seyed is one of the abandoned crew being helped by Sailors’ Society

“Sailors’ Society helped us when we were helpless”

Rev Boet van Schalkwyk, who heads up the CRN in Africa, says that even more than the practical challenges they face, one of the hardest things for abandoned seafarers to deal with is the mental strain of being apart from their families.

“Separation and isolation constantly present new issues of crisis for abandoned seafarers,” he says.

“When you add to that family illness back home, injury, food shortages – the pressure upon them intensifies.

“Helping them to deal with their feelings of anger, fear and hopelessness is vital and being there to help them is a privilege.”

It’s this support, says Rajesh, that helped him the most when Sailor’s Society responded to Janet’s tweets for help.

Our chaplains in India visited her, giving her money for nappies and other essentials, and called Rajesh repeatedly to counsel him and let him know that his family was being looked after.

Rajesh says, “After getting a call from Pastor Joseph [from Sailors’ Society] I felt some relief because he was very friendly and very caring.

“There are no words to explain how he entered into our environment and he changed everything.”

Months later, when Rajesh was finally repatriated, we were able to offer him a job as our chaplain in Mumbai port, so that he can help other seafarers when crisis hits.

“Sailors’ Society helped us when we were helpless,” he says.

“Now we are a part of their family.”

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