Abandoned sailors battling 'inhumane' conditions while trapped in UAE waters

Maritime security conference speakers back strong action against shipping companies who abandon crew

Merchant sailors trapped on an abandoned ship in UAE waters are facing "horrific and inhumane" living conditions, said a seafaring welfare champion.

Chriag Bahri, South East Asia regional director for the International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network, said the embattled crew of the MV Azraqmoiah container ship, being held off Hamriya Port, Sharjah, have limited access to food and water and have been in "survival mode" for some time.

The vessel - owned by UAE-based Elite Way Marine Services - has been anchored off the Sharjah coast for more than a year.

Its crew have been caught up in a legal dispute - thought to centre on an unpaid $144,000 (Dh529,000) fuel bill - and cannot be brought ashore as they do not have travel documents.

The ten sailors have not been paid for about 18 months.

Merchant sailors trapped on abandoned vessels when shipping companies go bust face similar challenges to victims of Somali pirates, Mr Bahri said.

Naval officers, the coastguard and charities working to safeguard seafarers discussed the welfare of sailors at a maritime security conference in Dubai.

Several vessels abandoned off the UAE coast have raised the profile of some of the problems faced by those serving in the merchant navy, transporting vital goods around the world on which many rely.

Mr Bahri is only too aware of the difficulties sailors face as he spent almost a year trapped at sea when the shipping vessel he was working on was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2010.

“We know that 95 per cent of goods are shipped around the world, but few people know about the hardships these seafarers face and how vulnerable they are,” he said.

“I was in captivity for 10 months in 2010, so I can relate to what these men are going through.

“There is a growing awareness of these kind of situations, but there are a lot of procedures to follow so are difficult to resolve.

“We should be prepared to offer these men long term support when they finally come off that ship.

“Charities often have to step in to pay for this kind of pastoral care.”

In June 2018, 16 crew on board the MT Zoya 1 anchored off Sharjah were finally repatriated after being stuck on board for more than a year.

Similar cases have been reported in the UK, Vietnam, Iran and Malaysia in recent months.

"Conditions on board MV Azraqmoiah are horrific and inhumane, the crew on board have been in survival mode for some time," said Mr Bahri.

“They have limited power, food and water.

“It is a UAE flag ship owned by a UAE company, so it is the country’s responsibility to resolve this issue.

“Good work is being done, but it needs more to recover their unpaid wages and offer them the support they will need when they finally go home.”

Vessels can not be left unattended at sea, in case they break free of an anchorage and become a hazard in a shipping lane.

The maritime conference was an opportunity to share the latest methods in resolving such disputes, and how to combat piracy in the region.

“It was a very bad experience for me when the vessel I was on was hijacked,” said Mr Bahri, whose charitable employers offer support for seafarers abandoned at sea when they are eventually repatriated.

“We were beaten up and tortured, tied up and left face down on deck for hours in the hot sun.

“The pirates wanted a $5 million ransom for the crew and the vessel. The money was finally paid after eight months and we were eventually released.

“During that time I lost my mother, I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. She had died five months before I was released, but I had no idea."

Mr Bahri said seafarers at the mercy of pirates or abandoned on vessels miles from shore will have gone through shock, extreme fear, and panic, with feelings manifesting from anger, into depression.

“These seafarers will not recover their dignity after being at sea for three years," he said.

“If these men were treated in this way by an employer on land in Dubai, I’m sure the police would already have been involved and action would have been taken.”