Sailors on board abandoned ships have been cut off from their families and must endure stifling heat in ships running low on supplies of food, water and fuel to run generators.
Many abandoned ships are offshore supply vessels and tugs with about 10 to 12 men on board.
Some have been in anchorage for more than a year in UAE territorial waters some two to three nautical miles off Sharjah’s Al Hamriyah coast.
Uncertainty regarding when wages will be paid adds to the sailors’ worries as they tend to be their family’s sole earner.
“I can only pray that we go back. Sometimes I think a seamen’s life is no good. There is no one to take care of my old parents. I can’t contact my family because I have too little balance to call home,” said a sailor, who has not been paid for a year.
“The summer was the most difficult because there was no diesel to run the generator. There is no proper supply of water and food. Sometimes the company sends food and water but usually it comes three to four days late. We cannot get sleep.”
Most sailors did not want their names or the vessel identified since they feared repercussions from the owner as in many cases talks with consular staff and the Federal Transport Authority were ongoing.
Paul Burt, regional director, Gulf and South Asia, Mission to Seafarers, a charity working in 200 ports and 50 countries, said the length of abandonment had risen from three to six months to more than a year.
In one case last year when supplies ran out for a month, sailors survived by fishing and drinking water from the condensation of air-conditioning units, he said.
“It is not uncommon for us to come across a ship where they have not been paid or had any relief for over a year or up to 18 months. More crews are being left to their own devices, not receiving salaries and their suffering tends to increase,” Mr Burt said.
Another sailor said his wife and child depended on relatives for money since he was on the ship for 15 months.
“I didn’t contact anyone for help. We kept asking the company. But after many, many months we had to ask the embassy, immigration for help,” he said.
Some said they were duped into signing on to abandoned ships. As per maritime rules, a ship must be manned so while an abandonment is being resolved, new staff are brought in with no knowledge of the dispute.
“I didn’t know the ship was in anchorage. I keep asking for sign off but no one is listening. My life is wasted. My family is in trouble,” said a sailor.
When distress messages are received, charity groups such as Mission to Seafarers, port authorities and consular officials deliver food and supplies.
The nationalities of the sailors range from Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Indonesians and Tanzanians.
Seafarers usually ask for help when promises to pay wages are broken and they turn desperate and frustrated.
Indian consul general Vipul said some unscrupulous agents take advantage of the sailors’ desperation to return home.
“It is the responsibility of the agent to arrange for a sign off from the vessel. The agent can get someone else to replace him and pay his salary. But they start negotiating after the sailor is stuck for 12 months. They ask them to take six months and leave. Then they get another person to man the ship and save money,” he said.