The concept of “hub” ports to receive, quarantine, test for COVID-19 and potentially vaccinate seafarers in the Pacific region was explored at a recent roundtable meeting (25 February) involving representatives from States in the region, UN agencies, the shipping industry, the relevant trade union organization and the Pacific Islands Forum.
Seafarers from Pacific island States have faced circuitous and lengthy journeys to return home when this has been arranged, illustrating the complexities of the crew change crisis.
Globally, there are currently some 400,000 seafarers needing to be repatriated from ships, having completed their contracted time at sea, with a similar number trying to join ships. Kiribati informed the meeting that more than 320 of its seafarer nationals were currently stranded, mainly in Brazil, Denmark, Germany and Spain, with plans to repatriate them, in groups of 20, via Germany and Fiji.
COVID-19-free countries (Samoa and Tonga) require nationals to quarantine for 14 days in Fiji or New Zealand.
Transit and repatriation requirements, usually via indirect flights, include quarantine days and negative COVID test results before onboarding flights/entry into the country.
The meeting identified the potential for hub ports in Australia (Brisbane), Fiji and New Zealand, and welcomed those countries’ willingness to help. At the same time, limitations such as the need to book limited quarantine facilities in advance, short supply of medical resources, including PCR equipment and test kits, and the costs of repatriation were acknowledged.
The need for priority vaccination for seafarers was also highlighted.
Shipping industry bodies pointed out that the inability for seafarers to travel from their country to embark on their new ship under a new contract could mean that some nationalities of seafarers would find themselves out of work as shipowners would take on seafarers of other nationalities. The vital contribution of seafarers’ earnings to domestic economies (and the welfare of individual families) in the Pacific Island States was noted.
Meeting attendees also suggested the idea of developing a standard protocol for port hubs.
The roundtable meeting was organized by IMO and attended by representatives from Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, New Zealand, Samoa, and Tonga; and from the International Labour Organization (ILO), IMO, World Health Organization (WHO), World Food Programme (WFP), UN Resident Coordinators (Fiji and Samoa), International Chamber of shipping (ICS), International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), Pacific Island Forum Secretariat (PIFS).