Stateless at sea: Seafarers facing trouble due to ship abandonment

Ship abandonment is among the many challenges that seafarers globally are confronted with, says Andrew Mwangura a Maritime Consultant based in Mombasa Kenya. He says between the years 2020 and 2021 a total of at least 76 cases of vessels being abandoned were recorded. He added that International Labour Organization-ILO together with International Maritime Organization-IMO began keeping records of abandoned ships in the past  17 years. Annually approximately 20-25 ships were being abandoned at various ports.

Indeed globally 4,866 seafarers on a total of 336 ships were recorded as abandoned on board in records kept by IMO and ILO beginning 2004.

This challenge has been fueled by Flag of Convenience (FOC), a business practice whereby a ship from let’s say U.A.E is registered in another country like Kenya and sails on a Kenyan flag.

A case in point is MV Jinan, a Ship that was Russian-owned with the crew from Syria but flying a flag from Zanzibar and was abandoned at Kenya’s port of Mombasa.

MV Jinan, a general cargo ship was sailing from Russia carrying steel and it docked in Mombasa.

MV Jinan, a general cargo ship was sailing from Russia carrying steel and it docked in Mombasa.

Steven Owaki, the Secretary-General of Seafarers Union of Kenya, told CGTN that the ship never got to sail off from Kenyan waters as it did not get any cargo from the Port of Mombasa in August 2019.

“In the case of MV Jinan, it had a lot of problems, the crew had not been paid for a period of time. The ship’s agents could not be paid for their services. The port charges had accrued to a significant figure. The shipowner could not pay. On the other hand, the crew tried to reach the shipowner unsuccessfully.”

MV Jinan initially had 18 crew who were from Syria. As it is the norm, the foreign crew cannot step out of the ship because of Visa regulations unless for medical reasons. This crew was not only facing a myriad of challenges from lack of food supplies and medical but they had not been paid their wages.

Kenya Maritime also decided to step in and analyze the state of affairs on this ship.

“Kenya Maritime Authority went to inspect the ship,” says Owaki, and found the ship had a lot of defects which were to be rectified to allow it to sail off. The case was reported to the International Transport workers Federation-ITF in London, and the information forwarded to the ITF Inspector in Mombasa.”

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development-UNCTAD in 1986, a state shall take necessary measures to ensure that ships’ owners or merchants in the registry are adequately identifiable for the purpose of ensuring their full accountability.

But here, it appears as if those international regulations were not adhered to. In 2020, there were several attempts to reach the owner of the Russian-owned ship, he was not reachable after all. The agents of the ship withdrew their services after having not been paid. This forced Zanzibar on whose flag the ship was sailing to withdraw its flag and the ship finally became a stateless/flagless ship after that pull and shove.

This opened a new chapter for the ship as the crew made a decision to move to court.

Owaki told us that: “In 2020 August the crew decided to take the matters to the court through their lawyer and filed their petition in the admiralty court in Mombasa. The court contacted the agents and the shipowner to appear before it, he did not show up. The court then went ahead and gave orders for the ship to be sold through auction, so that the proceeds from that auction could be paid to the crew.”

The bidding process began earnestly after an advertisement was placed in the press in February this year. The moment for the fall of the hammer came in May after the highest bidder finally showed up with 580,000 US Dollars to be paid for MV Jinan. By this time nine of the crew members had already left the country on their own. But they were part of the court case. Nevertheless, their monies were wired to them, and other port charges at Mombasa paid.

Mwabgura on his part submits that more often ships are auctioned whenever the merchant becomes bankrupt and is unable to pay up for the services rendered.

“Some of the ship merchants are just rogue, they are also involved in tax evasion while others are involved in shady deals like drug trafficking, this can also make them abandon their ships,” he adds.

According to statistics, Panama and Liberia have the largest number of foreign ships operating under their open registries.

But the biggest losers in the open registries globally are the seafarers. Like those who were on board MV Jinan for nearly 18 months and depended on well-wishers and charities to feed them and provide healthcare for them while the owner was missing in action.

Mwangura says some of the ships’ owners disappear as soon as the tides turn against them, play cat and mouse, wait and see game and appear as soon as the auction process kicks off to buy the ship through their conduits. They may buy the ship at very low prices making the seafarers lose quite a substantial amount of money in terms of accrued dues.