Seafarers' Rights International - Image © P. Terraz

The problem of abandonment

The problem of abandoned seafarers is a stark one. The International Labour Organization (“ILO”) keeps a database of crew who have been abandoned. This can be accessed at: ( However the ILO list is far from definitive. Abandonment is not easily defined. A crew may be forsaken even though officially the ship has not been abandoned. Yet given the vital role of shipping in the global economy, any instance of a seafarer being abandoned far from home and without the means to get back home must be a source of concern.

What is abandonment?

Abandonment can happen for a number of different reasons. It is often a calculated economic decision by a ship owner facing bankruptcy, insolvency or the arrest of a vessel by creditors. In many cases, vessels are abandoned after they are detained by port state control inspectors as unseaworthy. The global economic downturn has hit some operators hard, and sometimes it is the crew who come off worst.

When a crew on a merchant ship is abandoned in a foreign port, a familiar pattern of events often unfolds. The crew run out of fuel for generators, sometimes also food and water. Often the ship owner cannot be traced. On other occasions, the ship owner remains in the background, sometimes threatening the crew, more often making false promises that he cannot keep. On board, phone cards run out of credit and seafarers cannot call home. The mood sinks and tempers flare, a potent mix exacerbated by boredom. And the impact of abandonment stretches far beyond the ship itself. When seafarers have not been paid for months and cannot get back home, their families suffer too. Crew on board and their families back home may have to beg to survive.

For those left to pick up the pieces, the lack of a framework to adequately protect abandoned seafarers has been frustrating. Rear Admiral Charles Michel, former Chief of the US Coast Guard Office of Maritime and International Law, and Amber Ward, Staff Attorney at the Operations Law Group of the US Coast Guard Office of Maritime and International Law, reflected on the plight of abandoned seafarers in a joint paper published in 2009. “At best, abandoned seafarers are often subject to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and at worst, they may find themselves in life-threatening conditions with no means of sustenance,” they wrote. “It should be unacceptable in this modern age that crew members continue to be abandoned in foreign ports without food or water, the financial resources to get home, or their earned wages.”