For the past three years, Vikash Mishra, a merchant seaman from Mumbai, has been stranded on a rusting cargo ship at sea in the United Arab Emirates, thousands of miles from his young family, after being abandoned by the vessel’s owner.
His 39-month ordeal, which he describes as “mental torture”, was covered by the Guardian in July, when conditions in the busy shipping lane became so dangerous after the vessel developed engine failure that he and three crew members feared for their lives.
His wages went unpaid and he and the others were forced to sleep outside in searing heat at the mercy of cockroaches and mosquitoes.
Mishra’s case echoes that of Captain Ayyappan Swaminathan, an Indian captain whose abandonment by the same company, Elite Way Marine Services, a UAE firm, was highlighted by the Guardian in April.
The pair are just two of more than 5,000 seafarers recorded as abandoned by their vessel owners by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Labour Organisation since 2004.
But today, after three long years with few supplies, scant means of communication and a trail of broken promises from the ship’s owners, Mishra, 34, the second engineer on the Tamim Aldar, has finally had the news he has been waiting for. He has been paid 80% of his wages and hopes to be home for Christmas.
Mishra, who is now in Dubai maritime city port, said via a WhatsApp audio message: “We are very lucky. So many people are abandoned here, without salary, without anything. After 39 months, I can go home and see my family.
“When I came here, my daughter Tanya was eight months old. She will be four this month. I have been away three Christmases.”
Mishra said his son, Tanmay, said to him: “I will tell Santa Claus: Please, I don’t want a gift. Just send my father home.”
Mishra thanked the Guardian for helping to highlight his plight and that of other abandoned seafarers.
He and his three fellow crew members from the Tamim Aldar, Arsu Lobo, a chief engineer from India, Tesfa Michael and Welday Mehari Ayra, both Eritrean, are the last of the 36 seamen who were abandoned in several vessels in the Gulf by Elite Way Marine Services. They were effectively forced to continue work on board without pay, in order to keep the ships safe. The rest were successfully repatriated, with Ayyappan reunited with his family in June.
At one point, Mishra and the other seamen were so afraid for their lives they abandoned the Tamim Aldar, and attempted to travel the 25 nautical miles to port in a lifeboat before being forced back to their vessel and warned they faced jail.
In August, Mishra and the others were persuaded by another company, Mubarak Marine, to return to Dubai, where they are now living on a barge. Mishra was paid 8,000 UAE Dirhams, about ,000 (£1,500), which he has sent to his family, who are heavily in debt. In the last few days, Mishra was given 80% of the US,000 he was owed.
The IMO and human rights groups have compared rising abandonment cases to forced labour or modern slavery.
The past three years have seen a dramatic rise in abandonment cases – with the UAE one of the worst countries involved. This year, more than 50% of 474 men abandoned – 254 seamen – have not received their wages, their cases unresolved, according to the IMO.
At least 40 vessels have been recorded as abandoned this year; 44 in 2018, and 55 in 2017, compared to 12 to 17 cases a year in the previous five years. The IMO says the rise is partly to do with better reporting and greater protections afforded to seafarers under an amendment in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) in 2017. Under the convention, seafarers abandoned and unpaid for two months can claim their wages via mandatory insurance.
The UAE, where 90% of the labour force are migrant workers, is not a signatory of the MLC, which also insists on union rights. Last year, the country banned Elite Way Marine Services from operating in its waters and is planning new legislation to protect seafarers. The new law, not yet on the statute book, would allow the authorities to arrest abandoned vessels, sell them and prioritise seafarers instead of debtors.
Of the cases reported as abandoned in 2019, four involved flag states which had not ratified the MLC: Comoros, Dominica, Syria and the United Arab Emirates, IMO said. The International Transport Workers’ Federation have slightly different figures, and recorded five vessels in the UAE, four in Qatar and three in Iran.
Jan Engel de Boer, senior legal officer at the IMO said he believed the issue is underreported, because seafarers are under pressure from ship owners not to alert the authorities. De Boer said: “Less cases are being resolved. That’s my impression. The figures we are getting is not what is happening, just what is being reported. So you never know just how bad it is.”
When seafarers are abandoned, they are often at the mercy of charities, who act as a go-between, visiting their families to provide support.
The Rev Andy Bowerman, of the Mission to Seafarers, who recently returned from visiting Mishra’s family in Mumbai, said: “The sad thing is, all the time the children were saying ‘Where’s daddy, when is he coming home?’.”
“They have had so many promises and false dawns,” said Bowerman. “But with any luck, they will be home for Christmas. He knows of 60 individuals in 10 ships, off the coast of UAE, who have been abandoned for periods between three and 10 months.
Bowerman said: “There are changes but they are happening very slowly. The new law has not gone onto the statute books. If it does, it will represent a significant shift to recognise seafarers.”
The Federal Transport Authority in UAE were contacted by the Guardian for this piece, but did not respond.
UAE-owned Elite Way Marine Services told the Guardian in April that they failed to pay the seafarers from Azraqmoiah and other ships after encountering financial problems, but promised they would be paid soon. Captain Ibrahim Gafar, Elite Way’s operations manager, said the company had previously been unwilling to sell any of its vessels to release money for wage payments because unfavourable market conditions meant he would not get a good price, but they later found a buyer for one while another was being sold for scrap. “We have a financial problem,” said Gafar at the time. “For one and a half years the market has been down. Any person would not give a good price for the vessel.”
The company could not be contacted for this article. Mubarak Marine, a company which has been looking after the seafarers since August, did not respond.
David Hammond, of Human Rights At Sea, said: “When abandoned, in order to keep leverage and be taken seriously, a seafarer has to put his life in danger by remaining on the ship and that should not be happening.”
“Accountability for ship-owners has to come from national legislation. The lack of legislation to hold ship owners to account is a failure and goes hand in hand with a lack of will to prosecute.”
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