For the last year, since the start of the war with Russia, 331 seafarers and 61 ships have been trapped in Ukrainian ports, and calls for their expedited release are intensifying.
The International Chamber of Shipping, along with over 30 other organizations and companies, have written a letter urgently calling on the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to prioritize the immediate release of these sailors and vessels.
The ICS, which represents 80% of all global vessels, tells CNBC this is a safety and security issue for the stranded vessels and crews.
“Many of the ports are far too dangerous for the ships,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the ICS. “There may be sea mines. They [the vessels] may be under threat of attack, so they just could not move. And we really fear for their safety. From the very beginning, we’ve had one or two crew members who sadly have been hit by collateral damage and died, and others who’ve been injured. We’ve had ships that have been damaged as well.”
Since the start of the war with Russia, the number of trapped seafarers and vessels has gone down as some vessels have been able to operate in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allows for the safe passage of vessels carrying grain. But ICS is concerned about the safety and health of the remaining 331 seafarers since they have not been on land in almost a year. The men and women hail from 15 European and Asian countries.
In July of last year, the UN and Turkey brokered the Black Sea Grain Initiative with Ukraine and Russia, which allows for the safe passage of grain from Ukrainian ports. At the start of the war in late February 2022, approximately 94 vessels containing 2,000 seafarers from all over the world were stranded in Ukrainian ports. In September, there were 82 ships with 418 seafarers.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative was originally set to expire at the end of November, but the agreement was extended an additional 120 days. It is up for renewal again in March, but Russia is signaling it is unhappy with some aspects of the deal and has asked for sanctions affecting its agricultural exports, such as fertilizer, to be lifted. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently told the press he would only support the reopening of Russian ammonia exports, a key component to making fertilizer in exchange for a prisoner swap.
The ISC is in daily talks with the UN’s maritime arm, the International Maritime Organization, and is discussing ways to allow these vessels safe passage. One of those ways involves three open ports in Ukraine where vessels carrying grain can leave by convoy.
But Platten said he is concerned about the grain deal’s renewal.
“All we can do is encourage all the sides now to work together to continue this great initiative as we continue into the spring and into the summer,” he said. “This offers an avenue to get ships in and out and perhaps offers an opportunity for other [stranded] ships to then be able to move along.”
In an email to CNBC, the IMO noted it has encouraged continued work on humanitarian efforts to evacuate all stranded ships and seafarers in the conflict area. The IMO Secretary General, it says, “is actively pursuing all avenues to develop, negotiate and facilitate the safe departure of these vessels. This situation remains a significant challenge and the IMO Secretariat remains focused on making every effort to facilitate and support the departure of these vessels.”