Among the hundreds of thousands of sailors stranded by the Covid-19, none may have faced such an extreme ordeal as that of i-Kiribati.
Last weekend, after a year-long odyssey across continents – shuttling between foreign nations and stranded outside their homelands as waves of coronavirus closed previously safe roads – this ordeal finally came to an end.
In a palm-lined courtyard in Tarawa, the capital of the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati, tears and cries of joy greeted 141 sailors in an emotional reunion with families they had not seen since. almost two years.
Temware Iotebwa, 39, said that at first he did not see his children – his son, Tawati, 15, and daughters Sherlene, 11, Eilene, 6, and AyMe, three – in the crowd. But their cries quickly bring tears to his eyes.
âWhen my young children first saw me, they were screaming and calling my name,â says Iotebwa, who last saw her children in February 2020. âHearing their voices and seeing their faces made me bring tears to my eyes. This Sunday was one of my happiest days. We laughed and cried, and I had a lot of hugs.
Iotebwa, a skilled seaman, had been working a month on a nine-month contract on the Hamburg SÃ¼d / Maersk MV Monte Pascoal container ship when the pandemic was declared. He landed in Belgium, before flying to Fiji.
He and his teammates have spent the past nine months in limbo, sharing cramped hotel rooms and unable to tell their families when they would see them again.
Of the world’s estimated 1.7 million seafarers, more than half are from developing countries such as Kiribati, a low-lying nation of 33 islands with one of the lowest living standards in Oceania and a poor health system. Fearing it would not be able to cope, Kiribati responded to the pandemic in 2020 by closing its borders. The strategy has been successfully maintained Covid cases at zero.
But for Iotebwa and his fellow i-Kiribati sailors, it meant a hell of a year, caught in the midst of protracted negotiations between the shipping companies, the International Chamber of Shipping and a Kiribati government fearing the risks of allowing the return of sailors who may have been exposed to Covid.
Finally, in April 2021, after months of talks, the Kiribati government agreed to repatriate the sailors, who would initially be quarantined in Fiji. But then Fiji saw a sudden increase in coronavirus cases and the government of Kiribati reversed its policy. After authorizing the return of some sixty sailors to the country, the authorities again closed the border, without exception.
Iotebwa had just learned that he was about to return home when it happened. It was his lowest moment, he said.
âMy excitement turned to despair when I heard the news,â he said via a video link from Tarawa. âThe waiting time has gone from days to months. I missed my children very much and I missed them.
His family was also worried; the Grand Melanesian Hotel in the Fijian town of Nadi, paid for by the shipping company, was overcrowded and uncomfortable with no privacy.
âIt was like a prison,â he says. âMy wife, Takentemwanoku Matiota Iotebwa, constantly reminded me to be careful and stay away from people to avoid getting infected. She was very worried.
They kept their spirits up by playing croquet and tug of war in the lobby.
He’s happy now that he’s back home, but there is sadness too. One of his friends lost his father, another his wife. The marriages broke down under the pressure of waiting, and the ordeal cost families dearly. Sailors are often the main breadwinner and a source of remittances. They stopped being paid in early 2021 and are now worried about their job prospects as borders remain closed.
âI don’t blame anyone because this pandemic can happen anytime and anywhere,â says Iotebwa. âBut if my government had been smart, it could have found other ways to get us sailors home sooner. Other poorer countries organized the return of their sailors immediately while they were still in lockdown. “
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) this month organized a crisis meeting with “emergency” transport organizations to protect the rights of people working at sea. seafarers sent money to 12% of households in Kiribati in 2010, and the sector is an important source of employment.
Pastor Matthias Ristau, chaplain of the German Seamen’s Mission, helped care for 150 members of the i-Kiribati maritime community who were stranded in a youth hostel in Hamburg for months before being transported by plane to Fiji. âI could see they were really tough guys, but after so many months at sea they were already exhausted,â he says.
“And all the time, hearing about broken families, separated marriagesâ¦ I know it will take a long time for them to finally get home mentally.”
Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), says i-Kiribati’s plight is the biggest challenge she has faced in 18 years, including piracy.
Shaw, who was instrumental in negotiations between the Kiribati government, German and Danish maritime authorities and various United Nations agencies, said it caused him sleepless nights. 110 other men from i-Kiribati remain stranded.
âI won’t be happy until we collect the rest at home,â she said. âWe’ve had families in tears, thinking you don’t care. Every time we started planning we got a new challenge which made it really hard. There were multidimensional and multi-country challenges.
âIt has become a lower priority for the powers that could have made it happen. Unfortunately, she adds, the sailors are collateral damage in all of this.
Most seafarers worked on ships operated by Hamburg SÃ¼d, a German container line now owned by Danish company AP MÃ¸ller-Maersk. In March, the sailors, scattered around the world, were flown to Denmark and Hamburg by shipping companies, to regroup them for vaccinations and to facilitate repatriation.
RenÃ© Pedersen, managing director of AP MÃ¸ller-Maersk, said sailors were stranded in Denmark, Egypt, Korea, Malaysia and Australia.
â’We have started a dialogue with different governments,â he said. âBut the government of Kiribati was very determined: the border was closed and we could not repatriate them. “
Finally, at the end of 2021, Kiribati agreed that the sailors could return home from Fiji on a small cruise ship, the MV Reef Endeavor, provided they were quarantined before landing on Kiribati soil. It took eight weeks, plus a two-week quarantine on each end.
“This is an indication of the fragility of the global shipping industry,” said Steve Cotton, secretary general of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which has worked with ICS to help stranded seafarers. âWe take labor from the south of the world, which certainly has cost advantages. But when the system goes down, there is no safety net.
The new WHO-ILO-led action group includes representatives from the ITF, ICS, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) and the International Road Transport Union. Together, they represent 65 million sailors, crews and drivers.
One of the group’s concerns is that many of the countries of origin of these workers lag far behind the wealthier countries in terms of immunization. Although the situation has improved recently, with around 50% of seafarers vaccinated and the number of seafarers working beyond their contract increasing from 7% to 4.7%, the arrival of the Omicron variant has again turned things upside down, with at least 56 countries reimposing travel restrictions since its emergence.
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This means more sailors will be stranded and raised fears that the tortuous i-Kiribati experience could happen again.
“The government of Kiribati [was] trying to protect its citizens for the right reasons, but there is no understanding of the plight of individual seafarers, âCotton says. âThey provide for their families.
The Guardian has contacted the Kiribati government for comment.