Coronavirus: Forgotten sailors stranded at sea face long wait to return home

Seafarers have been left in limbo as ports close and supplies run out

Crew on the Mt Iba are anchored four miles off the UAE coast due to coronavirus restrictions. Courtesy NW
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Merchant sailors face months of isolation at sea as the coronavirus crisis blocks ships from docking at UAE ports while other vessels have been abandoned altogether.

Plunging oil prices and closed ports have piled more pressure onto shipping companies that provide a vital supply-line of imported goods.

Food, fuel and water is running out on the Panama flagged Mt Iba, a vessel with five crew on board, belonging to Sharjah-based Alco Shipping.

“Our situation is very bad, like modern slavery,” said chief engineer Naywin, who is owed $73,750 (Dh270,918) in back-pay.

“We are all suffering.

“Our diesel and freshwater supply is very low, and taxi boat services have stopped visiting us because of the coronavirus so it is very difficult for us to get fresh food.”

Mr Naywin has been forced to cancel the university education of his two children as he can no longer pay the fees.

Other crew on the Mt Iba include two second engineers, a cook and an ordinary seaman. All are from south east Asia.

Collectively, they are owed $164,625 (Dh604,744) in outstanding pay dating back to 2017.

"How we have all been living recently in isolation is a taste of the normal lives of these people."

A deal was close to being agreed to auction the $5 million (Dh18m) vessel that would have covered crew salaries and repatriation costs.

Closed courts and quarantine measures have left the Mt Iba marooned at its anchorage almost four miles off Hamriya Port, just north of Dubai.

“Our families are waiting hopefully to receive our wages, every day they ask,” said Mr Naywin, 51.

“They are now getting into trouble as the food and money is running out.

“We are all worried about the effect coronavirus is having on them.”

The last drop of fresh supplies to the Mt Iba was on March 9.

Three years ago, Alco Shipping was one of the largest shipping companies in the UAE.

The company operated 20 vessels, but falling oil markets have placed the company in financial crisis.

Waqar Ijaz Hasan has taken over operations of the stricken business in the absence of his brother Syed, 65, who was imprisoned in 2017 due to financial crimes.

“The business has been trying to recover for the last couple of years, so the current conditions have made it an even bigger problem,” he said.

“Everything has been taken over by the banks, and they are selling all the assets.

"There are only 15 employees left, including the five on the Mt Iba.

“We have been supplying them with provisions, about Dh10,000 worth of diesel, water and food every month or so, as this is the responsibility my brother has put on my shoulders.

“It is getting difficult to supply diesel as there is none available on the offshore oil ships we use.

“Everything is closed so it is a big problem.”

At its peak in 2015, the company employed more than 500 workers and had an annual turnover of Dh1 billion from its storage, shipping and refinery business and a lubricant manufacturing plant.

“We have been trying to sell the Iba for two years, but shipping has been impacted greatly in this region,” said Waqar Hasan.

“There is a potential buyer from Greece, but his vessel inspection was cancelled because of the lockdown.

“As soon as the ship is sold, the crew will get their salaries.”

Shipping is the second most dangerous trade after deep-sea fishing with around 2,000 seafarers deaths each year.

As the coronavirus pandemic puts huge economic pressure on the industry, campaign group Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) has received unprecedented reports of non-payment of wages, contracts being renewed without consent, and crews being left in foreign ports without money or flights home.

Special measures have been introduced during the coronavirus lockdown to aid seafarers where possible in the UAE.

These include prioritising seafarers with resident visas stuck on board ships, crews of passenger vessels laid up in the UAE, crew no longer medically fit to work and seafarers with urgent medical or humanitarian cases.

The Mission to Seafarers charity offers an urgent lifeline to abandoned crew on board anchored vessels.

But enforced travel restrictions on staff considered non-essential have prevented regular supplies being delivered.

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The MoS chaplain who leads Gulf operations, Andy Bowerman, is currently under isolation in the UK, unable to return to Dubai.

“Permission to visit these ships depends on the harbour master and coast guard,” he said.

“As all the courts are closed, the seafarer’s cases will not be resolved any time soon.

“A lot of crews are waiting at anchorages around the UAE as they have nowhere to go as most of the ports will not allow them in.

“These seafarers are the people who are unseen yet everyday they are trying to get supplies to all of us.

“How we have all been living recently in isolation is a taste of the normal lives of these people.”