Since 2017, our offices in the Middle East have been working, on a pro bono basis, with the charitable UK-based NGO, Human Rights at Sea, whose focus is on ending human rights abuse throughout the maritime environment.

Through our work, Human Rights at Sea are now working with the Federal Transport Authority of the United Arab Emirates government to ensure respect for seafarers Human Rights is incorporated in regulations and considered in future maritime legislation.

We interviewed David Hammond, Chief Executive Officer and Elisabeth Mavropoulou (LL.M), Programme Manager from the organisation to get their insights. The pandemic has greatly impacted the work of this charitable organisation, as they witness the human rights of seafarers being eroded.

How has the pandemic impacted seafarers and fisherman?

Due to the COVID restrictions, seafarers and fishermen are struggling even more than usual. For example, seafarers who had planned to undertake crew changes at ports around the World have been deprived of doing so and in some cases, have been abandoned on the ship at sea. Cases to crew retained onboard in excess of 18 months are being recorded, breaching contracts and the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. We have also seen border and entry restrictions without exceptions for seafarers requiring them to have no choice but extend their voyages. The pandemic has exasperated the situation and with an estimated 400,000 seafarers currently stuck at sea, the danger of global trade slowing is very real.

Are there any particularly extreme cases of this?

A good example is the MV Gulf Sky vessel case, which is both very sensitive and political spanning the US, UAE, India and Iran. The crew members of the vessel were stranded in UAE waters onboard the ship before it was hijacked and taken to Iran. 21 Indian nationals were working on the vessel and they had not been paid wages prior to the outbreak of COVID. The authorities tried to do as much as they could but the seafarers were stranded and many began having psychological problems even before the hijiack. Initially, they were not allowed to repatriate, though they wanted to return home and eventually were flown back from Tehran. They have now been repatriated but their wages have still not been paid and it is unlikely that they can easily get another job as their Seafarers documents which show thier qualifications and experience, remain in the UAE. The result is that they have no work, are in debt and now are open to suffering abuses from the likes of indentured servitude.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing seafarers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?

At the time of writing, some seafarers are effectively entering into periods of forced labour onboard vessels if they are unable to be repatriated. The UN has declared the crew-change issue a humanitarian crisis, while the solutions are held at State level, which itself is subject to the national policies surrounding the pandemic. The same also occurs for fishers, particularly from distant water fleets who come into port only occasional for crew change. Some fishers can be at sea over two years.

As it relates to COVID-19, are you seeing any trends in relation to human rights at sea?

While a will remains to solve these predominantly labour issues, human rights transgressions for example of not seeing family members, effective deprivation of liberty and lack of ability to earn a living have come to the forefront. There is also an apparent lack of funds across the entire sector, or rather if not, profit remains the priority over people. This includes lack of funds to pay wages, to support crew changes and lack of funds for the supply chain to be paid, though business continues to flow. Owners are not paying and insurers are also questioning their policies from the evidence we see. Ultimately, we still do not know the knock-on effect of the pandemic, but the consequence that we are aware of is a global disruption that has multiple ripple effects.