War in Ukraine: Seafarers suffering human rights violations need our continued support

SeafarersWorking conditionsSafetyMental health

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves around the world. As the two countries plunge deeper into war the impact of the conflict on the global seaborne trade and supply chain has been reacted too swiftly by the international maritime sector. However, for the seafarers facing human rights violations and ever-worsening conditions, there is both a need and opportunity to do more, quickly.

The story so far: seafarer sea-blindness

In 2020 The United Nations declared a humanitarian crisis for the hundreds of thousands of seafarers stranded at sea in the COVID-19 pandemic. Less than two years on and amidst the disturbing invasion of Ukraine, seafarers are once again subject to human rights violations and a threat to life.

The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine has further highlighted the vulnerability of seafarers in the global system. Human rights atrocities continue to be committed against people at sea, but their isolation from other areas of the global system, combined with sentiments of ‘sea-blindness’ means that seafarers’ human rights are often not adequately enforced or implemented until it is too late.

14.5% of the seafaring workforce are Russians and Ukrainians, so the pressure on shipping and the global supply chains to respond was instantaneous. With the help of international embassies, shipping companies took immediate action to repatriate seafarers from Ukrainian ports.

By the 10th of March, major Ukrainian ports came under attack. The first seafaring victim of war, Hadisur Rahman, a Bangladeshi third engineer on a bulk carrier lost his life because of a missile attack on his ship. His family has been left in unimaginable pain as they buried the body of their son. Further military attacks on merchant fleets continue, risking the stranded seafarers’ lives and security.

The situation today: seafarers’ conditions worsen, as they reach crisis point

In April, Human Rights at Sea deployed a team to Ukraine to gather evidence and report on the situation for seafarers on the ground. They estimate that around 1,500 seafarers are stuck on board ships, fearing for their lives, longing for their families, and struggling to survive on low provisions, lack of potable water, heating, and electricity. At the time of writing and save for the admirable work of one remaining chaplain from a welfare organisation, there is very limited support on the ground for those trapped in the Black Sea.

Seafarers are being fired upon by military vessels, one seafarer has been killed, and others remain trapped in the Sea of Azov and along the Black Sea coast. Others have lost their job or cannot access their salaries. Seafarers are suffering because of the war. They are in a precarious position yet again. The impact of the war for some might be job insecurity, for others being displaced and away from their families. For the 1,500 seafarers stuck at sea, it is fearing for their lives every day, not knowing when and if they will ever return home. Reports from the ground evidence that welfare support to those seafarers trapped in the Black Sea is very limited because of the war and the general insecurity.

Understanding the context and the current situation as it impacts seafarers will prove critical as we move forwards, shaping government and relief responses to respond as effectively as possible to the needs of seafarers’ human rights and safety. Monitoring and investigations of this war as it impacts seafarers must continue from civil society organisations and the media.

Seafarers need urgent support. Human Right at Sea are working tirelessly to ensure the protection of seafarers’ human rights and safety. Facilitating welfare and relief responses between national and international NGOs must continue so that the required support reaches seafarers as quickly as possible. This is urgent as supply lines are starting to be strained, and seafarers are not being factored into the planning of relief operations.

As is typical once war ends, routes to compensation, reparation, and justice will be established. Seafarers frequently don’t access these schemes as they are transient workers, and so aren’t necessarily located in the same places that the atrocities occurred for any significant length of time. Providing materials and resources to welfare organisations so that they support seafarers to achieve justice wherever they are located will expediate this process so that access to justice is possible for the seafarers most affected.

Looking ahead: protecting the human rights of seafarers caught in the conflict

Human Rights at Sea are already engaging with governments and organisations on the ground to protect seafarers caught in the conflict. We are also there to meet with seafarers onboard vessels in Ukrainian ports and waters to provide support and assistance. But more importantly, we need to investigate and report incidents of human rights violation and war crimes against seafarers, and work with governments and corporations to protect seafarers’ human rights.

If you would be interested in learning more about what our team on the ground is learning in Ukraine right now, or how you might support our work in the region – please visit our website here.