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Slave ship alert in the run-up to Sea Sunday

By Cian Molloy - 05 July, 2018

In the run-up to the observation of Sea Sunday on 8 July, the Apostleship of the Sea in the UK is teaming up with the Santa Marta Group, an anti-slavery organisation, to tackle the issue of slavery at sea.

Celebrated across the world by many Christian churches, Sea Sunday is a day set aside to pray for seafarers and their families and to give thanks for their work. Despite being crucial to international trade and the welfare of the world’s economies, sailors working aboard container ships and bulk carriers frequently endure harsh conditions and extremely low wages. Ninety per cent of the goods we use every day are imports, made available to us by the work of seafarers.

In Dublin, the Stella Maris Seafarers Centre on Beresford Place is open seven evenings a week as a drop-in facility for seafarers whose ships are docked in Dublin Port. At the centre, they can avail of counselling services, gain access to free Wi-Fi so that they can contact their families on the other side of the world and, if needed, take some of the new and second-hand clothing donated to the centre.

For a long time, ships crews have been badly paid and frequently they are left without money owing to them, but now there is a wicked new phenomenon: slave crews, where unpaid seafarers are kept captive on board the ships on which they work.

Speaking on board HQS Wellington, which is permanently moored on the banks of the Thames in London, the Primate of England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who is President of the Santa Marta Group said: “There are cases of seafarers and fishermen being effectively imprisoned on their ships, not paid wages and held in a modern-day form of press-ganging and slavery.”

The Apostleship of the Sea and the Santa Marta Group are now organising a series of workshops aimed at educating chaplains, volunteers, port officials and police about slavery at sea and what can be done to protect and support seafarers and fishermen. The first such workshop took place in Tilbury Docks earlier this year and the second one was held in Santos in Brazil in May. Further workshops will be held in ports across the globe.

In a Vatican message for Sea Sunday, Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Human Integral Development, noted that globally there are 1.2 million seafarers, from all nations and different faiths, who are forced to live for months in a confined space aboard ship, away from their families and loved ones, missing important and meaningful events such as birthdays and graduations and failing to be present during times of trial and difficulty, such as sickness and death.

Cardinal Peter Turkson

The Cardinal identified several challenges faced by “the people of the sea” on a daily basis.

With mechanisation and automation, turnaround times in ports are being reduced to a minimum, so crews have “inadequate personal time to rest and relax”, said the Cardinal. “Many of our chaplains and ship visitors are prevented to go on board vessels to provide material and spiritual welfare to seafarers who reach shore after weeks at sea.”

While violent attacks at sea are not as big a problem as they were in the past, there is a growing risk that coastal communities will turn to piracy because of the hardship they are suffering due to over-fishing by foreign factory trawlers.

Another issue highlighted by Cardinal Turkson is the abandonment of vessels and crews by ship owners. He said: “From 2012 to 2017, more than 1,300 seafarers were abandoned for different reasons in foreign ports far away from home, often with unpaid salaries and without food and fuel provisions for their vessels. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to all Stella Maris chaplains and volunteers, from Malta to South Africa and from the United Kingdom to the United States of America, for providing material, spiritual, legal and psychological support to crews of abandoned vessels.”

The Cardinal concluded his Sea Sunday message by invoking the Blessed Mother, Star of the Sea, “to extend her maternal protection to the people of the sea and guide them from danger to a secure port”.

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