For two years Mohammad Aisha has been the lone resident of an abandoned container ship marooned off Egypt in the Gulf of Suez. If he needs to charge his phone, get drinking water or buy food, he has to row to shore, although he can only stay for two hours at most as the area is a restricted military zone. According to one doctor who examined him, the malnourished sailor has started to exhibit similar symptoms to prisoners held in poor conditions.
Aisha has been the custodian of the 4,000-tonne MV Aman, trapped onboard as a prolonged legal battle to sell the vessel and pay the crew plays out thousands of miles away. Less than 50 miles north, the crew of the Ever Given, now immersed in its own legal struggles, are hoping to avoid anything close to the same fate. On Sunday, representatives from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), an umbrella union that represents seafarers, boarded the ship to check on the crew’s wellbeing.
A court made Aisha the MV Aman’s legal guard, meaning he was bound to the vessel, which was detained in the Gulf of Suez two months after he boarded it in Jeddah in 2017. Years of delays to the sale of the ship meant the hulking, decrepit structure remained stuck on the shore near the town of Adabiya, where it ran aground in bad weather last year.
Other crew members were repatriated in September 2019, leaving him alone on a skeleton vessel of dirty, empty cupboards and filthy living quarters. “It’s a solitary prison,” he said.
Aisha is hoping his strange confinement will come to an end any day now after a local union representative agreed to take his place as the ship’s guardian. Every minute that passes, he waits for news from the port authority that the new arrangement has been ratified, allowing him to finally disembark and return home to Syria.
It is surprisingly common for ships and their crews to be stranded and sometimes abandoned due to disappearing owners, pay disputes and management troubles – widespread enough that the International Labour Organization maintains a database of cases of abandoned seafarers.
For the ITF and its partners at the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), the priority in the case of the Ever Given is ensuring that the 26-person Indian crew are protected as a legal battle rages around the ship. It is now at anchor in the Great Bitter Lake after it was dislodged from the banks of the Suez Canal two weeks ago.
The rescue operation went from being a source of pride for Egyptians to the centre of a legal fight when the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) demanded $916m in compensation over the blockage of the waterway. Egyptian authorities impounded the ship, saying they would hold the Ever Given and its crew until the sum is paid in full. The battle between the SCA and the ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen, as well as the Ever Given’s operator, Bernard Schulte (BSM), and their insurers appears likely to drag on. The SCA’s chairman, Osama Rabie, told local television that the Ever Given’s owners were contesting the majority of the huge sum and “they do not want to pay anything”.
The UK P&I Club, a maritime insurance company that represent the owners of the Panamanian-flagged ship, said: “The SCA has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300m claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300m claim for ‘loss of reputation’.”.
It said the claim that the incident had damaged the SCA’s reputation was disputed. “We are also disappointed at comments by the SCA that the ship will be held in Egypt until compensation is paid, and that her crew will be unable to leave the vessel during this time.”
The operator BSM said the crew “remain in good health and good spirits” and the company’s “primary goal is a swift resolution to this matter that will allow the vessel and crew to depart the Suez canal”.
Abdulgani Y Serang, the head of the NUSI, which represents the crew, said they were “relaxed but apprehensive”. He said recent Egyptian court findings that led to the detention of the ship had made no comment on the seafarers’ professionalism, so he was hoping they would remain untouched by the crisis swirling around them.
“These are professionals who had nothing to do with this incident and should not be held to ransom,” he said. “Let the negotiations go wherever they need to go … the situation shouldn’t arise that our seafarers there in Egypt are on the receiving end of something. They should not feel any heat at all from this whole incident.”
Serang hopes that at least three of the crew whose contracts are due to expire will soon be repatriated in exchange for a new team of seafarers flown in to take their place. “We’re not interested in the financial negotiations and their outcome, our only interest is the human element, the seafarers onboard – we need to take care of their mental health and wellbeing,” he said.
Mohamed Arrachedi, a coordinator at the ITF, said the status of seafarers rarely took precedence despite their essential role in global trade. “Seafarers aren’t a priority when there’s conflict,” he said.
Abandonment officially occurs when shipowners fail to cover seafarers’ repatriation costs, pay their wages or otherwise shirk their responsibilities to provide seafarers with support for more than two months.
According to the International Maritime Organisation, there were at least 31 cases of abandonment between January and August 2020, concerning 470 seafarers. The IMO has recorded 438 cases affecting 5,767 seafarers since 2004.
Even Mohammed Aisha’s longstanding case isn’t unique to the Gulf of Suez: a Turkish captain, Vehbi Kara, was abandoned onboard the MV Kenan Mete in June last year, left on a ship infested with mice and without food or water.
“Problems are always big when it comes to shipping, as it’s a global industry that affects our lives more directly than we think,” said the ITF’s Arrachedi. “Everything is globalised, but when it comes to seafarers and their rights, there’s a hesitation to globalise these rights too.”
In the Gulf of Suez, Aisha waits for his freedom. “Onboard, there is no routine. Sometimes I walk round and round on the deck,” he said. “I try to do whatever I can to distract myself from this nightmare.”
Basic tasks such as washing clothes or using the bathroom can take half a day owing to a lack of electricity and fresh water. He has to haul up buckets of seawater. Aisha says he feels forgotten by the ship’s owner, the port authorities and the Bahraini government, under whose flag the MV Aman is registered.
“The owner knew what I was going through,” he said. “Moral responsibility or ethics, they have none. All they care about is that the ship wasn’t making them a profit any more, but the people in it weren’t a problem. They can die a slow, painful death and the owner doesn’t care.”