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The Ever Given Crew Are Still Stuck at Sea

The Ever Given Crew Are Still Stuck at Sea
Elisabeth Braw, June 9, 2021

Here’s why and what their story means for other seafarers.

On March 29, after being stuck sideways in the Suez Canal for nearly a week, the Ever Given was unmoored. With that, the world’s attention, rapt for days by global shipping, turned elsewhere.

That’s a shame because the Ever Given and its crew didn’t get to travel on to their destination. Instead, they were seized by Egyptian authorities. Their treatment wasn’t unusual. All over the world, seafarers endure the same tragic fate: stuck on their ships, sometimes for years, because shipowners and governments can’t solve their disagreements. Sometimes, they’re eventually turned over to authorities after committing no crimes.

They’re the hidden victims of the world’s increasing dependence on shipping.

What caused the Ever Given to get stuck in the Suez Canal? The answer to this question will decide the liberty of the megafreighter’s crew, who are now being held—with their freighter—in a lake adjacent to the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) argues the captain made mistakes on his ill-fated journey while the Ever Given’s owners claim the SCA shouldn’t have allowed the vessel to enter the canal during a massive sandstorm. At stake is a $550 million compensation the SCA is demanding from the Ever Given’s insurers. Until it has been decided who’s at fault and who should pay, the crew can go nowhere.

Freighters are regularly seized by foreign governments. Some, like Egypt’s SCA, do so over disputed services and payments. Some, like Australia, inspect vessels for adherence to global environmental and seafarer welfare rules, detaining them if they discover misdoings. And some simply seize vessels to make a geopolitical point. That’s what happened to the Swedish-owned, British-flagged Stena Impero in 2019, when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps detained it in an apparent response to the United Kingdom’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker suspected of breaking European Union sanctions on Syria. And every time, crews have to wait on board until others decide their ship can travel on.

That can take years, and sometimes, the decision doesn’t really ever come. For example, the owner may decide the fight over a stranded vessel isn’t worth it and simply abandons the ship. “We’ve just been dealing with a crew whose ship was stranded off the coast of Mombasa; all Syrians,” said Ben Bailey, the Mission to Seafarers’ director of advocacy. “We’ve been looking after them and supplying them with food, water, and oil for their generators. And while they’re waiting, they’re not receiving any wages. We have to remember that most seafarers come from developing countries and support families.” According to figures from the International Chamber of Shipping, the Philippines provides most lower-ranking seafarers, called “ratings,” followed by China (although Chinese ratings largely crew Chinese ships), Indonesia, Russia, and Ukraine. China is the biggest supplier of officers (who again mostly crew Chinese ships), followed by the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Russia.

For crews in limbo, stuck really means stuck: Although a seized or abandoned vessel is typically anchored at a harbor, crews are not allowed to leave it. And the situation is worse for crews of abandoned ships, who have no idea when they’ll be released from their floating prisons. As long as they remain on board, the ship’s owners should technically pay them, although unscrupulous owners typically have no intention of paying their abandoned ships’ crews even if they do stay on board. Consider the fate of the Azraqmoiah, a cargo ship abandoned off the coast of the United Arab Emirates for 18 months. Even when the owners finally resurfaced and the captain and two remaining crew members got paid, they only received 80 percent of what they were owed. “There’s no guarantee that the abandonment will be resolved,” Bailey noted. “In some cases, the owners are a small company that may be failing, and they deliberately abandon the ship so they can write it off. In some cases, it’s serious companies that have fallen on hard times.” In all cases, the crews pay the price.

The International Labour Organization’s database of abandoned vessels contains countless such stories. The Panama-flagged Axis, for example, arrived off Benin in October 2018. When it reached the Port of Cotonou, the Axis’s nine crewmembers—four Pakistanis, two Filipinos, and three Ukrainians—informed local authorities they were short of food, water, and fuel and hadn’t been paid for three months. By December 2020, the crew was still in Benin, with the two Filipinos remaining on the Axis. And spare a thought for the nine Azerbaijanis and three Russians who have been stuck on the Maltese-flagged Bakhtiyar Vahabzade in Istanbul for two years. The Bakhtiyar Vahabzade ran out of water and fuel long ago, and the crew hasn’t been paid for one and a half years, but the owner—the Turkish firm Palmali—is nowhere to be seen. In fact, 13 Palmali ships are currently abandoned, the 150-member crew on them owed $3.2 million in wages.