Unscrupulous cargo ship owners can abandon whole crews at sea if they run into money troubles.
One crew, stranded off the coast of Mombasa, Kenya, has been trapped at sea for 18 months.
The plight of the Ever Given focused attention on seafarers' wellbeing in an often-shady industry.
Off the coast of Kenya, near Mombasa, sits the MV Jinan, laden with steel. The cargo ship has not moved for 18 months and neither has its 10 crew.
In October 2019, the Jinan's owner abandoned the ship, leaving the crew without pay or any means of subsistence. The crew, all from Syria, cannot enter Kenya without a visa, and are more than 6,000 miles from home.
They have spent the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic stuck, with little contact from the outside world.
The Jinan is one of hundreds of cargo ships abandoned by their owners over the last two decades. Abandonment is defined by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) as when an owner cuts ties with the ship, or otherwise fails to pay a crew's salary or get them home.
The complex process of dealing with cases has improved. But while the legal wrangles play out, the crew - and particularly the captain, who is often made the legal guardian of the vessel - can be effectively imprisoned on abandoned vessels.
As the pandemic strained global trade, reports of abandonment hit record highs. When the International Maritime Organization (IMO)'s formal database first began in 2004, there were 20 to 30 cases a year, Natasha Brown, the IMO's head of public information, told Insider.
In 2020, 76 new cases were recorded, the famed shipping journal Lloyd's List reported, and as of May there had been 26 in 2021.
There is a substantial human toll when a ship is abandoned. The main human contact the crew of the Jinan has had since abandonment is Rev. Moses Muli, who works with the Christian welfare charity the Mission to Seafarers in Mombasa.
"For the crew, the situation is really bad," he told Insider. "The situation is worse than being in jail."
Thanks to protracted negotiations, the Jinan's crew are due to soon receive $309,290 collectively owed in back pay, and, according to Muli, should be able to leave their ship soon. The Jinan is to be sold for scrap.
'Most of them were almost giving up'
The MV Jinan reached Mombasa in September 2019, and the crew were told to stay put and await orders. A couple of weeks in, it dawned on them that nothing more would come.
In many places, the port authority has welfare offices that can help with abandonment, which is generally reported by the IMO or the ITF.
But in Mombasa, Muli's office with the Mission to Seafarers was the Jinan's main source of support.
"We thought it was going to be a short-term problem, but it has taken longer than we expected," Muli told Insider. "So since then, we have been supporting the ship up to now."
Many cases are resolved within a matter of two or three months, but the Jinan's struggles stretched out. Over the months, seven of the 17-strong crew gave up. Their families pulled together the cost of air fare home, and they left, Muli said.
Ten remaining crew members waited it out.
It is an uncomfortable existence. The ship is a plain environment with small living quarters and little by way of human comforts.
Muli has been a lifeline. He speaks to the captain over the phone almost daily, and makes the 1km trip from the shore out to the Jinan at least once a week, bringing food supplies and other essentials.
"They are like my family," Muli said.
The supplies are basic, and luxuries are rare. "In most cases, the captain sends us a list of the items he needs," Muli said - which are usually food like potatoes, wheat, rice and meat, and essentials like generator fuel, cooking gas, and first aid supplies.
The crew are celebrating Ramadan - a festival marked by a daylight fast that is ideally broken with large, convivial meals with family after the sun has gone down.
There's no such luxury for the crew of the Jinan, however, whose treat will be fruit, "if we have the funds," said Muli.
So far, the crew's upkeep has cost some 1.3 million Kenyan shillings, around $12,000. When the Mombasa branch of the Mission to Seafarers' local funds ran out, the charity's international headquarters stepped in with further support.
The crew have also received donations from outside, including from a grassroots organization called Who Is Hussain, and the Catholic Church in Mombasa.
But there are distinct barriers. In the pandemic, Muli's regular visits stop at the ship's gangway. There is also a language gap - the crew understand English, but don't speak much, Muli said.
Through the captain, whose English is good, Muli is able to provide legal updates and moral support to the men, who almost lost hope. One of the biggest problems was monotony and idleness, Muli said.
"Most of the time the crew are just idle in the ship waiting, since there is nothing else they can do," Muli said. "It is really a boring life - being busy pushes time, but being idle is really difficult."
Uncertainty has also taken its toll.
"The situation was bad," said Muli. "You could see that they were really, really down because they didn't know when the matter was going to be solved."
"Most of them were almost giving up. I remember a time the captain was saying that [he] will blow up the ship one day ... For him, he thought that his life had been wasted."
A growing problem
It's unclear exactly how many cargo ships - or how many crew - are currently abandoned, according to Brown, the IMO official.
As of late April the IMO database listed 198 vessels - mostly cargo ships and some fishing vessels - as part of open or disputed abandonment cases, some dating back to 2005. In some instances the crew made it home but never received their full pay. In others, mariners are still on board, hoping for a breakthrough.
A cursory look through the cases shows many claims of abuse: allegations of stolen passports; being left without food, water, or fuel; crew left stranded long after the expiration of their contracts; filthy living conditions; ships changing the national flag under which they sail in apparent attempts to escape regulation.
The issue of came to international attention in August last year, when Beirut's port and surrounding area were destroyed in a catastrophic explosion.
The 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that caused the blast had been stored for seven years in the port. The chemicals had been brought to Beirut as the cargo of the MV Rhosus, as Insider reported.
The Rhosus was abandoned in 2015 by its owner, Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin. Its deadly cargo was impounded and improperly stored by Lebanese authorities - ultimately leading to devastation. At least 135 people died in the Beirut blast.
In another high-profile case, Chief Officer Mohammad Aisha lived for four years alone on the MV Aman off the coast of Suez, Egypt. He had been made legally responsible for the vessel after it was abandoned following safety failures. Aisha was finally allowed to leave on April 22, when the Aman was sold.
Aisha's case eventually made international headlines, but the human cost of ship abandonment is usually much less visible.
More recently, concern grew about the crew of the Ever Given, the massive container ship whose grounding blocked the Suez Canal for six days in March.
The ship's owner, Japanese company Shoei Kisen Kaisha, has not abandoned the vessel. But the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) has impounded the ship and its cargo in nearby waterway, putting the status of most of the crew in a similar limbo.
The SCA has denied the crew are unable to leave, but insist that a minimum crew must stay on board to ensure the ship's safety.
There is no simple explanation for the steep increase in reported cases of abandonment, Brown said, but the pandemic has likely made it worse.
In 2017, amendments to the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) came into force, making it mandatory for shipping companies to insure against abandonment.
This provided a clearer legal pathway to file lawsuits - likely accounting for the increase in reports, to 55, that came in that year, Brown said. But between then and the pandemic, reports had been on the decline.
Noting the 26 reports already made in 2021, Brown said: "This is a worrying trend and what we have to ask is, is it to do with the economic impact of COVID-19 on small shipping companies?"
According to Lloyd's List, 17 of 2020's 76 cases were directly related to the pandemic - where border closures saw many seafarers trapped at sea, often working long beyond their contracts. Meanwhile, the pandemic strained global trade to its limits.
David Hammond, founder of Human Rights at Sea, told Lloyd's List that the 2020 increase in reports was "a reflection of market conditions and often tight business margins which can place owners into debt and needing to offload liabilities."
The shipping industry moves 90% of the world's cargo, and abandonment is an unseen facet of global consumption. Brown told Insider that cargo seafarer welfare is a black hole in the corporate responsibility mindset.
"At the moment you have a lot of companies, such as H&M, which are looking very much at the factory and whether they meet certain ethical labor criteria," she said. "And they're often looking at the workers in their shops in wherever they're selling the goods.
"But what they don't look at is the people who are involved in getting these products in the container from A to B."
Muli said that no amount of economic difficulty can justify the human suffering caused by abandonment.
"We understand the situation we are in, with coronavirus, and there are so many financial problems," he said. "But all the same these are human beings. The way these people have suffered, I would not want to see other seafarers suffering the same."
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