A globally dispersed community of seafarers from Kiribati are at the epicentre of a struggle for repatriation following their displacement during the crew change crisis.
ccording to the Human Rights at Sea, central to the dilemma is the termination of an agreement between a consortium of shipping companies and the Kiribati government, which has long enabled the training and recruitment of I-Kiribati seafarers.
The current challenges faced by Kiribati’s maritime workforce are largely consequential to the international travel restrictions imposed by the global effort to manage the COVID-19 pandemic
These restrictions disrupted the established ‘crew change’ system with, causing a humanitarian crisis, which has resulted in up to 400,000 seafarers being stranded on their vessels, with an additional 400,000 unable to join their ships at all.
For Kiribati’s seafarers, the effect of the so-called ‘crew change crisis’ has been amplified by the logistics of traveling to and from the remote Pacific Island nation, and the fact that the country is currently free of COVID cases.
When the few available transit routes to the island were cut off in 2020 as the country’s border closures came into effect, more than 250 I-Kiribati seafarers became stranded internationally, predominantly in Australia, Fiji, Germany, Indonesia, and South Korea.
While shipping companies employing I-Kiribati seafarers have thus far supported the nation’s maritime workforce, the cost and apparent risk of employing them given their challenging circumstances have proved unsustainable.
As the shipping companies withdraw from their longstanding partnership with the island nation, I-Kiribati seafarers are coming to terms with the potential reality that, when they are eventually repatriated, they may never be employed as seamen again
What is more, group vaccinations are currently underway to prepare for the eventual return home. All crewmembers stranded in Hamburg, Germany; and Nadi, Fiji have been vaccinated, accounting for some 190 seafarers.
In Brisbane, Australia, four individuals have so far been vaccinated, with Mission to Seafarers currently arranging the vaccination of the remaining 35, bringing the total vaccination rate for the displaced crewmembers to around 90%.
HRAS and Mission to Seafarers Brisbane have outlined three key recommendations to help facilitate the repatriation of I-Kiribati seafarers and secure their futures in the international maritime industry.
- Australia and New Zealand should become instrumental in establishing suitable systems and protocols in conjunction with the Kiribati government to manage the safe repatriation of I-Kiribati seafarers.
- Australia and New Zealand should establish ‘green lanes’ with the Kiribati government to facilitate alternative employment opportunities in the Pacific agriculture industry.
- A COVID-safe travel bubble between the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand should be considered as an alternative to otherwise challenging international crew change systems.
The global crew-change crisis continues unabated and while not always part of international news headlines, the detrimental effect upon I-Kiribati seafarers and their families is now a significant welfare problem that is bringing both their treatment and the restrictive Kiribati state response to the forefront of public awareness