The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has warned safe shipping will soon be in jeopardy if governments continue to ignore calls to allow crew changes via globally agreed protocols.
IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim made the fresh call for swift action to resolve the crew change crisis ahead of the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations beginning 22 September and World Maritime Day on 24 September.
'A humanitarian crisis is taking place at sea and urgent action is needed to protect seafarers' health and ensure the safety of shipping,' he said.
It is estimated that more than 300,000 seafarers and marine personnel are currently stranded at sea and unable to be repatriated despite the expiry of their contracts. A similar number of seafarers have been unable to join ships and relieve them. This is due to restrictions imposed by several governments in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, including restrictions on travel, embarkation and disembarkation in ports, quarantine measures, reductions in available flights and limits on the issuing of visas and passports.
Some seafarers have now been on board their ships for more than 17 months, exceeding the 11-months limit set out in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).
Many have been denied proper access to medical care and shore leave, in breach of their rights under the MLC and other international instruments, causing serious concern for crew welfare.
'Seafarers cannot remain at sea indefinitely,' Mr Lim insisted. 'If the crew change crisis is not resolved soon, ships will no longer be able to operate safely pursuant to the Organization's regulations and guidelines, further exacerbating the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.'
This fresh call to action from the IMO secretary-general is in line with months of action by unions, including numerous top-level statements, bilateral meetings at a diplomatic level, as well as the establishment of the Seafarer Crisis Action team to directly help stranded seafarers.
United Nations secretary-general António Guterres added his voice to the call and urged all countries in the world 'to recognise seafarers as key workers and provide the necessary travel assistance to ensure safe crew changeovers and repatriations'.
While significant progress has been made by many countries in allowing for crew changes for all seafarers, the rate of progress is not keeping pace with the backlog of ships requiring crew changes.