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Foreign Seafarers Are Stranded in Ukraine for Christmas

Posted on January 2, 2023

It’s the third day of Christmas on the Western calendar, now favored by many Ukrainians, who have done their best to keep things merry and the lights on amid the Russian invasion. There are many people far from home in the country this year, whether they’re soldiers on the front line or refugees who’ve fled Russian-occupied territory. Among them are the 331 seafarers who have been stuck in Ukrainian ports since the war broke out. Because seafarers must keep manning their ships, and because it’s extremely dangerous for the ships to leave the ports, the seafarers are prisoners of their vessels and struggle to access food and medical care. This war has many victims—but none may be more forgotten than these 331 sailors from different countries.

This is a good season to remember them and to work to get them home before the first anniversary of the war arrives in February. The world’s goods overwhelmingly move by sea, and it’s thanks to men and women like these sailors that Westerners can live extraordinarily convenient lives powered by products from all corners of the world. Christmas gifts make it to us thanks to the efforts of seafarers, not reindeer.

“When the war broke out, there were over 200 ships in Ukraine, primarily located in six, seven ports including Odesa and Mariupol,” said Natalie Shaw, the director of employment affairs for the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). “And at that moment, it became very difficult to leave.” When the war started, nearly 800 (some sources say close to 1,000) seafarers from countries including India, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, and Bangladesh were trapped. That’s because Ukraine’s armed forces understandably mined their country’s ports to keep them safe from Russian amphibious assaults, while the Ukrainian parts of the Black Sea, as well as the Sea of Azov, became so dangerous to sail through that it was foolish to try. In early March, an Estonian-owned, Panama-flagged cargo vessel sank off the Port of Odesa after hitting a mine, and in early April a Dominica-flagged ship docked in Mariupol sank after being hit by a Russian missile.

Some of the ships have since managed to leave, mostly thanks to the U.N.-sponsored grain corridor that was established in July. “When the grain initiative was launched, it meant that ships that were able to support the initiative by carrying grain or fertilizer could leave through the corridor,” Shaw told me. Such vessels had to leave some of their original cargo behind—but after months of waiting, some of the perishable cargo needed to be discarded anyway. More than 100 ships have sailed out as part of the grain initiative.

Twelve ships managed to leave the ports before the initiative was launched, and another six were forced to leave when Russia seized the ports in which they were docked, according to figures collected by the ICS. Some governments and shipping companies had already managed to get crew members out through various land routes to Poland and Romania. Ukraine has unsurprisingly evacuated its own nationals. In early March, 21 Filipino seafarers whose vessel had been in Odesa for repairs were brought to Moldova and were able to travel home from there. But with war raging, the land route was dangerous as well. On balance, it was wiser to stay put.

And more than 10 months after the war began, 331 seafarers are still stuck. Even at the best of times, modern commercial seafaring is a tough life for the crewmembers, who are largely drawn from developing nations. The 331 have to look after their ships, as crews always do, but getting supplies for the ship—not to mention themselves—is extremely difficult. “We know that the conditions on board are dire,” Shaw said. “They don’t have access to provisions. They can’t get medical care. To the extent that they are managing to get food and other supplies, we don’t know many details since they’ve been told for security reasons to switch their radios off.” Earlier this year, Shaw was awarded a British order for her herculean efforts to repatriate seafarers stranded in foreign ports during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the war in Ukraine has proved an even tougher challenge than COVID.

Indeed, while the world has been celebrating the grain corridor—indisputably a major diplomatic achievement that will alleviate food insecurity in many countries—it seems to have forgotten about the seafarers trapped in Ukrainian ports. Ukrainian maritime trade unions, meanwhile, focus on their own members. Shipping companies, though, are painfully aware of the situation, as are Panama and other leading flag states, as well as the seafarers’ home nations.

“The companies are keeping us updated about the crews that are stuck, and flag states like Panama have raised the issue, as have the crews’ home governments,” Shaw told me. “But because seafarers’ remittances are a major source of income for these countries, they don’t want to focus on this horrendous situation for fear of frightening people off from becoming seafarers.” Today, the world has nearly 1.9 million seafarers, most of whom come from the Philippines, Russia, Indonesia, China, and India. It’s not clear whether there are any Russian or Chinese citizens on the stranded ships.

The ICS has proposed that the trapped vessels should be able to leave through the grain corridor, but Russia is unlikely to agree to such an arrangement. That means that until Moscow changes its mind or is defeated, the 331 Indians, Bangladeshis, and citizens of other countries who have nothing to do with the war will continue their involuntary confinement in Ukrainian ports. Let’s hope they don’t see another Christmas there—or the first anniversary of this war.


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