Is the criminalization of seafarers on the rise?

Written by Heather Ervin
MV Wakashio accident

(Credit: Mobilisation Nationale Wakashio)

For over a year now, the crew of the MV Wakashio has been held by Mauritian authorities following the grounding of the ship and the widespread pollution that followed.

At the end of July, The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) called for the immediate release and repatriation of the crew.

David Heindel, ITF Seafarers’ Section chair, said the ITF and its affiliated seafarers’ unions have “deep concerns” about the treatment of the crew Mauritian authorities. He said the federation last week wrote to the president of the Republic of Mauritius, Prithvirajsing Roopun. In its letter, the ITF appealed for President Roopun’s support to see legal proceedings advanced and the expeditious conclusion of the now-year-long saga faced by the crew.

In the ITF’s letter, Heindel and ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton appealed to Mauritian authorities to consider the human cost that delayed proceedings and unnecessary detention would have on the crew and their families:

The Wakashio accident and the uncertainty of when the crew will go home can be seen as part of a long-running problem.

The ITF characterizes the treatment of the Wakashio crew as “what appears to be an example of criminalization of seafarers.”

The criminalization of seafarers is one of the most serious problems facing seafarers today—and it seems to be on the rise.

This has been seen not only with the Wakashio accident, but also with the crew of the Ever Given when it became wedged across the canal in March, bringing traffic in the vital artery to a halt for days and costing $5.1 billion a day in world trade. After Egyptian authorities impounded the ship, its crew had to remain on board.

“Whether it is felt by the crew of the Wakashio who were effectively detained without charge, or the drawn-out threat of criminal charges against the Ever Given crew to bolster the Suez Canal Authority’s negotiating position over damages: seafarers are being cynically targeted all over the world by officials just for doing our jobs,” said Heindel.

Seafarers are also sometimes getting snared when drugs are found aboard vessels. In one such case from three years ago, the crew of the bulk carrier UBC SAVANNAH were arrested in Mexico and held without charge nor trial in poor conditions, when cocaine was found in the vessel’s cargo hold dispersed across 227 packages.

While most the crew were released shortly after their arrest in 2019, Polish captain Andrzej Lasota was held until March 2021. According to the ITF, Mexican authorities claimed that he had been negligent in “failing to be aware that the ship he commanded may have been carrying prohibitive substances,” whereas in fact as soon as the packages were found, Lasota ordered an immediate halt to all cargo operations and notified relevant authorities.

While we could spend more time examining similar cases to these, what is outlined is clear. The criminalization of seafarers is another nail in the hiring coffin for maritime.

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