20 JUNE 2021

Concerns are mounting amid shocking revelations that ports are increasingly refusing to repatriate deceased seafarers’ bodies under the the guise of COVID-19 pandemic measures.

According to the the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), during the last 15 months there are have been at least ten instances where seafarers have died of non-Covid causes only to be denied the ability to disembark the body for repatriation.

“This is clearly more about governments’ incompetence to re-establish systems of body repatriation than it is about managing Covid-19 risk to local populations,” says Fabrizio Barcellona, ITF Seafarers’ Section coordinator.

In the case of the MV Ital Liberia, reporting indicates the Italian captain passed away in mid-April after a shipboard outbreak of COVID-19. After the ship was denied access to Asian ports, the operator was forced to declare force majeure so the ship could return to Italy in order to repatriate the body.

“The difficulty seafarers’ families are confronted with in their attempts to repatriate their loved ones’ bodies is a direct consequence of the pandemic. The sad case of MV Ital Libera is only the latest example of where families are being denied the return of these seafarers’ bodies for a final farewell,” said Barcellona.

Reporting this week shed light on another concerning incident regarding the Romanian captain of the MV Vantage Wave, who passed away from cardiac arrest back on April 19 only to be denied repatriation requests by multiple countries despite COVID-19 not being at issue in his death. The ship has been stuck at China’s Outer Guishan Anchorage since May 7 and it remains waiting for berthing and discharge instructions.

These incidents come amid the backdrop of the pandemic-induced crew change crisis which is estimated to still impact some 200,000 seafarers across the globe. According to the ITF, the failure by governments to repatriate bodies of dead seafarers is reflective of “ignorant” and “disrespectful” attitudes towards seafarers throughout the pandemic.

“We feel that the disrespect shown to seafarers’ families on body repatriation of deceased seafarers stems from the same ignorance demonstrated by the world’s governments who have been responsible for the misery and suffering caused by the crew change crisis,” said Barcellona. “Because of governments’ blanket border restrictions that prevent crew from leaving and joining ships, 200,000 seafarers remain trapped working aboard vessels, unable to go home at the end of their contracts.”

For Indonesian seafarers, China’s policies towards the repatriation of deceased seafarers has been particularly hurtful to family members of the deceased, according to ITF.

“Indonesian seafarers’ families have been incredibly distressed at the policy of Chinese officials to block the repatriation of their loved ones’ bodies, with Chinese officials instead insisting on cremation of bodies and the return of ashes only to seafarers’ home countries. To some religious cultures and traditions, China’s policy to prevent burials and families’ time with the bodies of the deceased seafarers is exceptionally offensive,” said Barcellona

“We have to remember that this is an international workforce comprised of seafarers from all nationalities and faiths. It seems cruel for governments to treat seafarers’ families in this way, after those families have literally given up their sons and daughters to do this essential work. Seafarers families deserve more respect than this,” he added.

But according the ITF, the problem is more about disorganized bureaucracies than managing COVID-19 risk.

“China in particular has a lot to answer for when it comes to their negligence towards international seafarers working along their coasts. China still has a ban on seafarers coming ashore for crew changes, and local officials are increasingly blocking sick and dying seafarers from being hospitalized – in direct violation of China’s moral responsibility as a port state,” added Barcellona.

“We have heard reports from within China that a reason for the increasingly harsh policy towards seafarer hospital access is due to overwhelmed local hospitals in regions experiencing surges in Coronavirus case numbers – such as in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. Seafarers are being told there simply aren’t enough beds. They are being left to die at sea,” he said.


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