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St Kitts and Nevis Flag State forsakes over 30 seafarers already abandoned by shipowner

Noticias 20 Oct 2023

The St Kitts and Nevis (SKN) ship registry has evaded its responsibility to more than 30 seafarers by deregistering three ships on which they are abandoned, a tactic which has been roundly condemned by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

Seafarers on the Med Sea Eagle (IMO: 8356443) and the Med Sea Fox (IMO: 9376189) anchored off the off Sharjah in the UAE since July, and others on the Med Sea Lion (IMO: 9350331) in West Africa have been abandoned by owners Sea Lion Shipping, having not been paid for months and left without support essential to their wellbeing. They are all running low on food and water and many are in urgent need of medical help. One, from the Med Sea Eagle, became so distressed by the situation that they attempted to take their own life. ITF inspectors report that the mental wellbeing of all these seafarers is poor.

SKN has confirmed to the ITF that it has deregistered all three ships in response to their abandonment, but it has not (after more than a week) come back on a request to explain why it did this while seafarers were still on board and in peril.

“St Kitts and Nevis is playing fast and loose with international law,” said David Heindel, ITF Seafarers’ Section Chair and President of the Seafarers International Union. “It is morally unacceptable to leave these seafarers to rot on stateless vessels. By merely deregistering these vessels, it should not relieve them of their obligations. If it’s that easy, what good do our international instruments provide in protecting seafarers. SKN has taken an appalling situation and made it a hundred times worse. That’s absolutely not the attitude we expect of this or any other flag state.”

Flouting international law

The Caribbean island group has ratified the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC – 2006) which lays out responsibilities on the welfare of ships’ crews, including in the case where they abandoned by the shipowners. This makes it very clear that in the event that shipowners do not support seafarers, and insurers are not forthcoming, the Flag State takes on the obligation for seafarers’ wellbeing.

In the case of these three ships, Sea Lion Shipping claims to be in financial difficulty and insurers have been unresponsive to the ITF’s demands to step in. Under the MLC, that leaves the seafarers’ lives in the hands of the Flag State, SKN.

“In deregistering these ships, SKN is blatantly ducking its obligation,” said Heindel. “I find it unbelievable that it takes the fees for registering ships but, at the first sign of trouble, it ducks out. The international shipping community must call SKN out for this callous disregard for human life.”

Article V of the MLC requires that states employ sanctions and corrective measures to discourage violations. While removing the flag is a serious penalty, it does not prevent a shipowner from continuing operations under a new flag and does nothing to further the cause of the seafarers that have been exploited, Heindel points out.

Regulation 5.1.4 para 17 requires that: “Adequate penalties and other corrective measures for breaches of the requirements of this Convention (including seafarers’ rights) shall be provided for and effectively enforced by each Member.” It is not clear how the removal of the flag can be an adequate response to the abuse of seafarers as in the cases of these three ships.

Symptom of a crumbling system

Flag States are responsible for the regulation of the ships they choose to register. SKN is officially listed as a Flag of Convenience (FOC) by the ITF. These are registries open to any shipowner, regardless of whether they have a genuine connection to the state, and are often selected by less scrupulous owners in the expectation of a poor standard of oversight.

“This case throws into sharp relief the lunacy of the FOC system,” said Steve Trowsdale, ITF Inspectorate Coordinator. “Countries like St Kitts and Nevis see registering vessels as a money-making opportunity but do not put the resources in place to properly regulate their ships. The world’s economies absolutely rely on ships like these, yet they continue to tolerate this flawed system. In doing so, they are continually putting the lives of seafarers at risk.”

The seafarer who attempted suicide has been released from hospital but unfortunately was sent back to the ship, exposing them to continuing high levels of anxiety. ITF inspectors continue to work with the crews of all three ships, attempting to ensure they are fed and watered, get the medical help they need, are paid what they are owned, and can get home to their families. We must apparently do this without any help from SKN.