Seafarers in a time of war

A container ship
 on June 20, 2022

Wars, it would seem, have their own set of rules. Which rules, and how they are followed, depend entirely on the side one finds oneself on, or chooses to be on. There are wars and conflicts being fought around the world today, but the one that has greatly affected the world’s shipping industry, and the people in it, is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The ripple effect is far and wide. Our task at the Mission to Seafarers is to filter through these so-called ™rules∫ and to serve the men and women of both countries, regardless of politics, culture, gender, religion or, in this case, war.

Sadly, in the case of this particular war, there is an ancillary problem: of the Ukrainian seafarers currently at sea, who number approximately 76,000, most live in cities like Mariupol and Kherson, which have suffered devastating attacks. We have heard many stories from Ukrainian seafarers in our ports that only about half of them know the whereabouts of their families.  

™Paul,∫ a Ukrainian seafarer whose ship was in the Panama Canal, had been begging his wife to leave Mariupol and go to Romania. Our Mission to Seafarers’ colleague there reached out to us to ask if we had any contacts in Romania. A few emails later, we had a list of numbers to call and names of people who were waiting for Paul’s wife and family. Unfortunately, Paul’s wife can’t find petrol to drive to Romania, and now her mother is reluctant to leave Mariupol. It’s been three weeks and I am not aware of her situation anymore, whether she was able to leave or, if she has remained in Ukraine, what her status is. So many seafarers are in the same position.

With the Russian seafarers there is another layer of problems called ™sanctions.∫ To quote the Royal Belgian Shipowners Association: ™The growing isolation of Russia makes it increasingly difficult ± if not impossible ± to pay the wages of the Russian seafarers, due to the severe restrictions to the country’s access to Swift, the main international payment system. At the same time, it is becoming harder to get them to where they are needed, due to the closure of many air connections to and from Russia.∫ Fifteen per cent of the 1.9 million seafarers in the world are Russian or Ukrainian, the loss of whom would have a serious effect on international shipping.

The saddest problem we are faced with (on top of all the other issues) is ships with joint Russian/Ukrainian crews. Crew allotments were made long before the invasion, so they are forced to work together. One captain told us, ™There are absolutely no political discussions allowed on board,∫ and that’s how he’s been able to keep the peace. When we go on board, most of the Ukrainian seafarers want to talk about their families, and many of them want to return home to fight for their country; most of the Russian seafarers keep to themselves, in small groups, wearing a badge of quiet humiliation.  

We’ve been giving out free SIM cards to both Ukrainian and Russian seafarers. One Russian seafarer was moved to tears when our mission staff offered him a free SIM card, and they are all very grateful for the kindness we show them. We make no exceptions, no distinctions; for the most part, they are as sad, hurt and angry as the rest of us.  

War, it would seem, has its own rules, depending on who started it and how it will finish. These past two plus months have seen political barriers breaking down on ships in a way that could bode well for the future of these two nations. In the meantime, we do all we can at our Mission to Seafarers stations here and around the world to care for these remarkable people. And the ripple effect continues. 

The Rev. Judith Alltree is the regional director of Mission to Seafarers Canada.  


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