Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine by RDML Charles D. Michel and LT Amber S. Ward, U.S. Coast Guard Office of Maritime and International Law.
Despite years of prosperity in the shipping industry and international guidelines designed to prevent the shameful practice of abandoning seafarers, crews are still being abandoned in foreign ports worldwide. Between 1990 and 2006, approximately 1,000 ships and 150,000 seafarers and fishers are believed to have been abandoned.
Just since 2004, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Labor Organization (ILO) tracking database reported more than 60 vessels were abandoned.
Economic Value vs. Value of Human Life
Abandonment is often a calculated economic decision by a shipowner facing bankruptcy, insolvency, or arrest of its vessel by creditors. In some cases, seafarers are abandoned along with their vessel after a port state determines the vessel unseaworthy and detains it for repairs.
At best, abandoned seafarers are often subject to cruel and degrading treatment. At worst, they may find themselves in life-threatening conditions.
What’s to Stop This?
Despite a customary international law right to seek redress through national legal systems, abandoned seafarers often do not have access to remedies because they cannot afford the litigation expenses. Even if seafarers have access to justice, the abandoned vessels are often of little value, and those who take legal action may be blacklisted.
Port states, including the United States, are typically ill-equipped to handle the humanitarian situation, disposal of the derelict vessels, or the immigration issues associated with abandonment. Although most ships are insured, coverage typically ceases upon insolvency or non-payment of premiums.
The Broader Impact
While the increasing complexity of global shipping has created an unprecedented demand for seafarers, the scourge of abandonment is a blight on the seafaring occupation. It serves as an indication of how, even today, seafarers can be exploited by their employers without remedy. This reduces the attractiveness of seafaring during a time of critical shortage of qualified mariners.
Port states can help combat the problem by unilaterally denying entry into port those ships not in compliance with international standards. Before vessels are allowed entry into a port, they should be required to prove their financial capability to repatriate and care for their crews should a problem develop. A certificate showing insurance coverage, a bond, or a port entry tax might provide sufficient security for this purpose.
For the first time since humans first began going to sea, there is a real opportunity to provide a comprehensive, mandatory international mechanism to provide for the basic humanitarian needs of the uniquely vulnerable class of seafaring workers abandoned in foreign ports. We all benefit from the service of seafarers who keep vital commerce flowing, and we owe it to them to terminate this shameful practice.
Part II gives three examples of the abandonment of seafarers.
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Full article is available at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/summer2009.
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