An unwanted “prison sentence” for seafarers stuck at home and stranded at sea

Seafarers working on a container ship in Johor Port, Malaysia. /IMO

Hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been on board for many months longer than planned, stranded at sea due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Six months after the problem was first reported, many of them are still struggling to cope with the ongoing uncertainty.

Seafarers working on a container ship in Johor Port, Malaysia. /IMO

Throughout the year, the maritime transport industry has managed stay afloat, allowing food, medicine and other essential goods to be transported across the world, to stock the shelves even during the strictest lock downs.

However, many seafarers were forced to stay at sea for several months longer than planned, sometimes for over a year: The UN maritime agency (IMO), estimates that some 400,000 seafarers, from all over the world, are still on their ships, even though their contracts have ended, unable to be repatriated. Another 400,000 are thought to be stuck at home due to the restrictions, unable to join ships and provide for their families.

The mental health of seafarers has been sorely tested, as Matt Forster, an English Chief Engineer, based mainly on an oil tanker in the Middle East and Asia, told UN News in July. His contract was well overdue at the time, and he was having difficulty coping with the separation from his two small children.

Chief Engineer, Matt Forster, was unable to travel home once his contract had ended due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. /IMO/Matt Forster

“I’ve done long contracts before, but this is different”, he said. “It has a psychological effect, as there is no end in sight. It affects family life a lot more. My children are always asking me when I am coming home. It’s difficult to explain to them”.

Mr. Forster is now back in England, reunited with his children, but his experience has made him think twice about his choice of career. “We wanted to go to work, do our bit, and then come home. We didn’t sign up for what felt like an unwanted prison sentence”, he says.

“I don’t want to go back if I am going to get stuck again for another six months. And it’s not just me: a lot of other seafarers around the world feel the same way. It’s going to cause people to leave the industry.”

(Article originally published on UN News)