Ghost ships with an unseen workforce of hundreds of seafarers are anchored off the UAE coast - lost at sea for years due to complex legal disputes or cash flow crises.
Skeleton crews are often abandoned on vessels anchored miles off the coastline, whilst shipping networks pursue lengthy resolutions to disputes through the maritime courts.
The Mission to Seafarers charity has offered these men, many signed up from India, Pakistan and the Philippines, hope their desperate cases will be resolved.
It offers a lifeline of support, with regular visits to stranded vessels donating water, food and even fuel in more desperate cases.
Dr Paul Burt, a British clergyman leading the mission to support stranded seafarers in the UAE since 2012, said more than 500 vessels can be anchored offshore at a time.
“Seafarers have become the forgotten labour force,” he said.
“They face similar problems to other labourers working in the country, but get little help. These guys are often invisible.
“Dubai relies on its trade for prosperity and as 90 per cent of what is used here is imported, people’s lives are tied up with those of the seafarers.”
Between the Gulf coastline of Abu Dhabi and Ras al Khaimah, about 400 vessels are anchored awaiting permission to come to port. A further 150 ships can be waiting on the east coast.
Some will be waiting to re-stock supplies, whilst others are swapping crews or having maintenance work and inspections.
Problems arise when sub-standard ship owners running questionable operations run into difficulties.
Crew are often the first to feel the pinch when cash flow problems surface, going without salaries for months at a time.
With families to support in their home countries, many are living day-by-day in the hope of being paid what is owed but can be left at sea for up to three years in some of the worst cases according to Dr Burt.
“We regularly have calls about crew not being paid for months at a time, and get asked to act as a mediator to find a solution,” he said,
“There was a crew abandoned for three years between Ajman and Umm al Quwain who we worked closely with.
“The ship was commissioned during the height of the anti-piracy scene and had a Filipino crew.
“The bottom dropped out of the market when the ship was finally ready, due to other anti-piracy measures that had taken effect, and then abandoned by its owners.
“They had registered it in a third party’s name so it was very complicated. It took almost three years to resolve.
“The crew were remarkably resilient. I spoke to the captain when he returned to Manila, and his wife had left him and his son didn’t recognise him. He had lost his family, so that is the human cost.
“Crew often know the risks, but have little choice as the alternatives are even worse.”
Although exact figures on how many ships run into difficulties every year is not available, Dr Burt said the mission runs operations to help seafarers up to six times a month.
In 2017, welfare officers visited more than 11,000 seafarers in ports and anchorages around the UAE, assisting almost 700 crew who had been unpaid for a total of 5,500 months.
Last year, emergency aid and water was delivered to 87 crew on 10 ships in the Sharjah and Ajman anchorages.
The monthly salary for an experienced captain would be about $6,000 a month, whereas unqualified crew are paid about $2,000.
“Some shipping companies are badly run with questionable ethics, treating crew like the diesel and rope,” Dr Burt said.
“Owners play the system, get their crews from an illegal agent in Mumbai giving false papers and visas.
“They know how to exploit the weak points along the coastline, where international standards are not enforced, so that’s where problems arise.”
The group’s work came into focus last month when 17 crew on-board Zoya 1, a 330 metre vessel anchored 11 miles off the Sharjah coast called for help. They have been at sea for more than 13 months.
Help is also being offered to nine Russian crew on-board The Crystal East, a Russian ship in the Ajman anchorage.
A sister ship has been left stranded, but at 40 miles offshore, is too far to reach.
The mission relies on Ramadan donations from businesses who want to engage in charitable activity.
New laws regulating charities and volunteers has made it harder for the mission to do its work, but the group’s costs have reduced after a support vessel it owned, The Flying Angel, was decommissioned.
A misconception of how people can support operations has also hampered the charity’s ability to help crew.
“There is a widespread misconception that people think they can’t make private donations to international charities such as MtS,” said Catherine Leach, the group’s Dubai based development and public relations officer.
“Any money donated goes towards helping the seafarers not only in Dubai but in the UAE as a whole.”
Donations can be made securely online at www.missiontoseafarers.org
Businesses wishing to get involved can email firstname.lastname@example.org.