Written by MAYURA JANWALKAR | Mumbai | Published: June 28, 2020 2:49:03 am
Director General of Shipping Amitabh Kumar said those on board the MV Astoria should be on their way home soon. (Representational)
While over 18,000 seafarers stranded at ports around the world have returned to India, an estimated 4,000, on board merchant vessels across the globe, are still at sea.
With Indian seafarers still seeking repatriation from foreign ports, the All India Seafarers and General Workers Union (AISGWU) office in Navi Mumbai has been swarmed with calls, emails and Twitter posts of seafarers seeking their help to come home after spending months on merchant vessels amid the global Covid-19 pandemic-induced travel restrictions.
In a letter to the Ministry of External Affairs on June 16, the AISGWU drew attention to 164 crew members on board the merchant vessel (MV) Astoria at the Tilbury port in UK. The letter stated that amid the coronavirus outbreak, “our Indian citizens stuck in foreign waters from the past 90 days and need help…. The Indian crew staged a peaceful protest on the ship asking the Indian government and state officials to help them return home to their families.” In all 495 Indians on board five ships — four at Tilbury and one at Bristol — are awaiting clearances to return home, the union said.
Director General of Shipping Amitabh Kumar said those on board the MV Astoria should be on their way home soon. “We have reached out to the (shipping) company to find out what problems they are facing in the repatriation. So far we have not received any request for bringing in their ship or chartering a flight. They need to apply to our High Commission in London for approval of a chartered flight to bring them (seafarers) back. We are guiding them to charter a flight in case they want to. We cannot bring all our seafarers together because states also have a limited capacity to receive passengers because of testing and quarantine requirements. A calibrated approach is being used and we expect that this will be sorted out over the next 15 days,” said Kumar.
Kumar said that while Indian seafarers are scattered all over the world, channels have been opened to enable their return amid the unprecedented crisis caused by the pandemic. He said that there are different ways for seafarers to come back. “If their ship is coming to India, they are allowed to sign off at any port. If their ship is not coming to a port, they can sign off at an anchorage free of cost, if not a ship, they can also come by air but that may have many limitations — the port where they may be may not allow them to come out of the vessel because of the pandemic, even if they are allowed there may be no flights from there. Many logistical issues need to be taken into account but no shipping company has refused to repatriate seafarers,” Kumar said.
Sanjay Pawar, president of the AISGWU, said, “We have been getting calls on our landlines, messages on social media from seafarers stranded in different countries. But this is no ordinary time, crew returning to India also need clearances from the Indian Missions in the countries they will board flights from.”
Other than crew stuck in UK, AISGWU national coordinator Shital More said a pregnant woman and her Indian husband, both stranded at sea in Norway, had sought to return to Tamil Nadu. In a mail sent with “limited wifi”, a seaman from Mumbai asked the union to help facilitate his return from Iran. In his mail on behalf of himself and five other Indians, a seaman stranded in Vietnam wrote to the union, “Please understand our feelings and situation. It’s been one year since we saw our family.”
Chirag Bahri, Director of Regions, International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) that runs a 24-hour helpline for seafarers, said that they were in touch with at least 15 Indian Missions abroad assisting seafarers wanting to return home. He said that in the last three months they have received calls mostly from stranded seafarers wanting to go home, those seeking help to get on Vande Bharat Mission flights and of those going through severe stress and anxiety.
“How long can one go on like this? Seafarers are concerned about their families back home amid the pandemic, they are mentally and emotionally stressed, they have limited connectivity, ports everywhere have become strict. They are not always able to disembark, go out and relax. If you sail continuously, you need to release the fatigue that sets in,” said Bahri, cautioning about high-stress levels among stranded seafarers.
According to the Directorate General of Shipping, between March 23 and June 15, 7,280 seafarers had signed off at 19 Indian ports and Mumbai and Goa have received the maximum number of repatriated seafarers. Since chartered flights were allowed May 19 onwards, 10,824 seafarers have been repatriated and 427 seafarers have returned on VBM flights.
Those who returned to Mumbai after an exhausting wait at sea, spent seven days in quarantine at a hotel before being reunited with their families. Vijay D’Souza, who came home to his daughters in Vasai a day after Fathers’ Day, had left on March 3. “Emotions ran high, people were worried about their families back home amid the pandemic, some colleagues lost family members while they were stranded in another country. We had to tell everyone to keep calm and we staged a peaceful protest with placards on the ship deck to draw our government’s attention,” he said while their ship MV Explorer I was anchored at the Isle of White in UK.
Rajesh Gawde, a bartender on the Explorer I and a seafarer of 15 years, came home in Kandivali East in a white PPE suit that made his two-year-old son run away from him. “With my elderly mother and little son, my wife had to do everything at home and also go out for whatever we needed since I was away. It was a tough time at sea, people were getting depressed and the stress was killing us,” he said.
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