Criminalization of seafarers during a pandemic


What is criminalization

Criminalisation is one of the most serious problems facing seafarers today. When there has been a maritime accident, or a pollution infringement, seafarers have often been detained and denied access to normal rules of fair play and justice with which to defend themselves against criminal charges.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new scope in criminalization. Namely, due to the current situation, countries are maintaining strict regulations to minimize the spread of the virus. This has resulted in stringent checking at ports of ships, in order to maintain proper sanitization to minimize the spread.

In fact, crew change has become a very difficult challenge to solve. During embarkation and disembarkation, seafarers are going through strict checks, which sometimes are more than was expected.

COVID-19 and seafarers criminalization

Authorities worldwide are taking every measure necessary to combat the pandemic. However, despite this necessity, the procedures must ensure that they respect the human rights of seafarers. Every seaman should be treated fairly.

In fact, while it is understood that in such critical times, measures are more drastic, the basic human rights must be preserved at any time. As for the seafarers, they must be aware of their rights and must act accordingly.

It is not a secret that criminalization is a major problem for years. A recent survey by Nautilus sheds more light on how seafarers perceive this situation. The survey, which included 500 seafarers found that:

‘’Nearly 90% of seafarers said they were worried about criminalisation of maritime professionals, showing the overwhelming impact the issue has on the sector’’

Moreover, the results also showed that nearly one in five (17%) respondents said they had been involved in a legal incident during their career on the sea. Additionally, 70% said the fear of criminalisation has a negative impact on their feelings about working at sea.

This is not good news. This fear is only getting bigger during this pandemic, having a great toll on the mental health of seafarers, which is already compromised. In fact, seafarers fear that they will be interviewed by authorities in Covid-19 inquiries, and they worry that their answers will cause them trouble.

Even without a pandemic, seafarers have a very difficult job mentally. The workload and isolation from loved ones are affecting seafarers significantly. Add to this the stress of COVID-19 and the difficulties of repatriation, of which seafarers are losing hope, and we understand that seafarers are at a critical point. In fact, due to anxiety and low mood, the following short-lived symptoms may appear for seafarers:

  • Faster, irregular or more noticeable heartbeat;
  • Feeling lightheaded and dizzy;
  • Headaches;
  • Chest pains or loss of appetite.

These symtoms may worsen when people focus on them. Seafarers who are concerned about physical symptoms should speak to the person(s) responsible for on board medical care and if necessary seek advice from telemedical services.

Taking all of the above into consideration, one can easily understand that the last thing that seafarers need is fear of breaking any law that would make their ordeal much more difficult than it already is.

IMO/ILO Fair treatment guidelines

In order to provide a solution to criminalization, the IMO/ILO Fair treatment guidelines, along with the ICS Updated guidelines, aim to protect seafarers’ rights.

These guidelines serve as a reassurance to governments and port authorities in order to ensure that it is fully possible to conduct crew changes/enquires a safe and effective crew change is possible and protect seafarers from inhumane treatment.

The goal of the IMO/ILO Guidelines on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers in case of a Maritime Accident Guidelines is to provide seafarers with a fair treatment, after a maritime accident and during “any investigation”, “interview” or “detention by public authorities”.

Despite the fact that these guidelines are written mainly for maritime incidents, their advice would also ally apply to investigations arising out of Covid-19:

  • Fair investigation: The port state must ensure that any investigation that takes place within their jurisdiction is conducted fairly.
  • Fair interview: The port state should ensure that after seafarers are interviewed, they should be allowed to re-embark or be repatriated without delays.
  • No retaliatory action: The port state must make sure that no discriminatory or retaliatory measures are taken against seafarers due to their participation in investigations.
  • Cooperation with agencies: The port state must cooperate with all interested parties, to provide seafarers’ representative organizations access to seafarers.
  • Protecting human rights: The port state must preserve the human rights of seafarers at all times.
  • Non discriminatory procedure: The port state must provide due process protections to all seafarers.
  • Legal advice: The port state should ensure that seafarers have interpretation services, and are know their right to legal advice.
  • Basis of investigation: The port state should make sure that seafarers are aware of the basis of the investigation is being conducted.
  • Right to communication: The port state must ensure that seafarers can communicate privately with their family, welfare organizations, the ship-owner, trade unions, the Embassy, flag State, and legal representatives.



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