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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

Ship crew stranded off UAE coast in legal dispute lose hope for return

Legal row and bad weather delays efforts to rescue more than 30 men

Capt Ayyappan Swaminathan, centre, with the crew of the ‘MV Azraqmoiah’, says he misses his wife and daughter, 8, from the bottom of his heart. He has been stuck at sea for two years and his men are owed $250,000 in unpaid wages. Courtesy: Ayyappan Swaminathan
Capt Ayyappan Swaminathan, centre, with the crew of the ‘MV Azraqmoiah’, says he misses his wife and daughter, 8, from the bottom of his heart. He has been stuck at sea for two years and his men are owed $250,000 in unpaid wages. Courtesy: Ayyappan Swaminathan

Families of more than 30 seafarers stranded on abandoned ships anchored off the UAE coast are losing hope that their legal cases will be resolved and their loved ones be allowed to return home.

Crewmen on board three vessels, owned by the same company, had hoped to be rescued by early February but poor weather and legal deadlock has delayed their return.

Financial and legal difficulties have stranded one of those vessels, the MV Azraqmoiah container ship, about 50 kilometres off Hamriya Port in Sharjah. Because the crew are without travel documents, they are unable to come ashore.

It has been almost three years since its captain, Ayyappan Swaminathan, last saw his wife and eight-year-old daughter Aniha, who live in Tamil Nadu, India.

Aniha’s first day at school and losing her baby teeth are just some of the moments Capt Ayyappan has missed in the life of his young daughter.

“I miss my wife and daughter from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “I feel guilty not being able to pay for her school fees, as I have not been paid for 19 months. Last night I called Aniha and she started crying, asking when I will be home.

“Her friends ask why her grandfather goes to see her school events, rather than me. It is very difficult for everyone.”

Conditions on board the 'MV Azraqmoiah' container ship anchored off Sharjah are difficult, with restricted power and supplies for the crew. Courtesy: Human Rights At Sea 
Conditions on board the 'MV Azraqmoiah' container ship anchored off Sharjah are difficult, with restricted power and supplies for the crew. Courtesy: Human Rights At Sea 

An unpaid $144,000 (Dh529,000) fuel bill is understood to be at the heart of the dispute.

No cargo was on board the MV Azraqmoiah – owned by Elite Way Marine Services – when it was held by the UAE coastguard in April last year and all crew documents seized.

“I am very worried about my husband’s condition,” Capt Ayyappan’s wife, Menaga said.

“Without his salary, we are all struggling. I have had to depend on others, but how long can they help us?

“We have been told the Federal Transport Authority has filed a case against the company, but court proceedings will take a long time.

“Rent and school fees need to be paid, and we have other expenses just to survive.”

It is a month since legal officials and FTA representatives met the crew to take statements, and reassure the men they would soon be ashore.

Rough weather has played a role in the delays, but the crew remain on board, desperately awaiting news of their rescue.

As the days and weeks drag on, with limited supplies and power on board, families of the stranded crew cling to the faint hope that their relatives will be repatriated before summer.

Until then, Capt Ayyappan eagerly awaits any scrap of information about their case.

Poor hygiene and bed bugs are becoming a regular problem in the ship’s cramped living conditions.

“We are burning wood to cook food on board,” crewman Aniket Deulkar said.

“We have to keep our vessel blacked out at night due to power shortages. Because of this, last month we collided with another vessel.

“For our families, the financial conditions are getting critical as the days are passing.”

Sourabh Naskar has been on- board for 18 months, without pay since December 2017.

“We haven’t got enough food and water, no blankets, pillows or toothpaste,” he said. “Our company has never done any type of fumigation, so our cabins are full of bed bugs. It is almost impossible to sleep.

“I can’t take this situation any more. I’m feeling sick, mentally and physically.”

Stricter regulations on vessels entering UAE waters without crew insurance to protect salaries are coming, although the FTA has yet to confirm when these might be ratified.

Collectively, the MV Azraqmoiah’s crew is owed more than $250,000 in unpaid wages.

Maritime law prevents the crew from abandoning the vessel, because an unmanned ship would pose a collision risk in a busy shipping lane.

Briton David Hammond, a former lawyer and founder of Human Rights at Sea, said a change in maritime law is urgently required.

“There are very few maritime human rights for seafarers on a global platform,” he said.

“What the UAE is doing with proposing new national and insurance legislation and better coastguard training is potentially a game changer.”

The charity has 244 seafarers registered as missing by family members. They are mostly fishermen, with the most recent logged on February 6 this year.

“There is a lack of knowledge, and lack of registering of abandoned vessels,” Mr Hammond said. “Because of a historical lack of acceptance to address these issues, it has created a global problem.”

* The Federal Transport Authority was contacted for comment.

Updated: March 12, 2019 09:48 PM

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