Chinese seafarers stranded as ships remain adrift in coronavirus limbo
- Close to 35,000 cruise ship workers are stuck on the high seas as ports turn vessels away to prevent a wave of imported cases
- While some countries have repatriated their nationals, China has not indicated it will do so as it battles new infections in its capital
Coco has no idea when she will see her parents again. The 30-year-old, who works for an international cruise line, was meant to return to her family in north China in March – but she and the rest of her crewmates are currently stranded in the Mediterranean Sea. It has been a long nine months since the Chinese national, who asked to be identified by her English name, set out to sea.
International travel curbs and border restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus have resulted in cruise ships being turned away each day by ports around the world. The downturn in air travel due to the pandemic, leading to difficulties in cruise operators chartering flights home for their employees, is part of the reason tens of thousands of crew members are effectively stranded at sea.
Cruise workers are among the hundreds of thousands of weary seafarers stuck on ships, some for 15 months, United Nations shipping chief Kitack Lim said earlier this week.
Coco is particularly worried as food and medical supplies – such as vegetables, fruits and masks – have run low, and there are a handful of crew on board who have possibly caught the deadly coronavirus and are isolated in their rooms.
“There are many of us out at sea for months and some cannot deal with the anxiety of not being able to return home soon,” she said. “I hope this depressing tragedy does not go on.”
Stewart Chiron, a Miami-based independent cruise-industry analyst, estimates that close to 35,000 crew members, including Chinese nationals, are still stranded on the high seas, though the number has fallen sharply from about 60,000 last week.
US National Guard delivers coronavirus test kits to cruise ship
Many of the giant cruise liners have reported that Chinese citizens are among crew who have yet to return home, and it might be some time before they can do so as the Chinese government is intent on preventing a possible new wave of infections from reaching its shores. A partial lockdown of Beijing was announced this week after a new cluster of Covid-19 cases tied to a seafood market was reported.
This comes even as countries, including India and the Philippines, scramble to bring home hundreds of seafarers who have been at sea for months. A spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry body, said its members had repatriated “thousands” of crew members.
“However, due to international air travel and border restrictions, these efforts have proved extremely complex, made even more complicated by differing policies across the many countries represented by the diverse cruise ship workforce,” she said.
Among CLIA’s members are Norwegian Cruise Line, which last week had 6,500 crew across three lines aboard vessels at sea, while Carnival Cruise Line, which has workers hailing from 130 countries, had 21,000 crew from nine lines waiting to head home. A Carnival spokesperson said the majority of its crew were from the Philippines, China, India, and European nations. Royal Caribbean Cruises has repatriated more than 28,000 of its workers, according to chief executive Richard Fain, who added that he was hopeful the remaining staff could get home by the end of June.
Cruise analyst Chiron, who described the process of helping crew members to return home as a “Herculean task”, said cruise lines were left with two options. They could either slowly disembark crew at different ports all over the world, or anchor in foreign waters and await the easing of travel restrictions. As of this week, he said, there were about 24 cruise ships anchored in Manila Bay in the Philippines, unable to dock.
Coco’s ship falls into the first category. Initially docked in New Orleans after returning from the Caribbean in early March, the ship later sailed to Miami, where crew members were gradually repatriated over a period of weeks. The company helped them get in touch with their various embassies, and booked charter flights for them out of the United States.
“Crew from various countries, including Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and some European countries … managed to book commercial flights home,” she said. “But the Chinese embassy said it could not help. It delivered some face masks on board, and that’s it.”
Since April, her ship has sailed from port to port in the hope of finding a berth. There are 3,000 crew members left on board, Coco said, 10 per cent of whom are from the mainland, while the others are from India and the Philippines.
Her vessel is now near Italian waters after being turned away by the Port of Barcelona. In two weeks’ time, it will head to Mumbai and Goa to disembark its Indian staff, and another fortnight after that it is scheduled to dock in Manila to allow its Filipino crew to return home.
“As for when Chinese nationals will alight, there is no news,” Coco said, adding that the 300-odd crew members from the mainland have been feeling “lost”. “I feel upset as the policy changes every day. The company gave us hope, then told us we can’t leave. Charter flight information from all other countries comes every day but the Chinese crew never receive any good news.”
She is hoping the ship will be able to dock at the Port of Shanghai in July, but she has heard from her cruise operator that the port will not allow vessels to dock, meaning the Chinese nationals will not be able to disembark there.
Many Chinese crew aboard cruise ships, including Coco, have sounded off about their plight and desperation on popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo. Among them is a post by user Trista who on June 4 said she had been stuck at sea for 128 days.
“Day after day, month after month, it’s been bad news from the embassy every time,” Trista wrote, adding that there was a confirmed coronavirus case on board her ship. “If this is not considered dangerous, then what is? How else can we get the Chinese embassy to help us? We are a neglected group of crew workers.”
In the post, which garnered more than 65,000 likes and thousands of comments, she mentioned that she was stuck in Philippine waters with hundreds of other Chinese crew members, mostly in their 20s.
Trista also wrote that she had heard there were crew members who had taken their lives on board, but took down her post six days later, saying it had angered many Chinese netizens who were defending the central government.
Chiron, the cruise analyst, said he had heard of at least three such deaths on cruise ships around the world. “I can certainly sympathise, when you are stuck at sea, stuck on a ship, you are doing the same thing every day, you are hearing different kinds of rumours each day, and you don’t know what’s going on and you want to get home,” he said. Some of these crew members were “so near to their home coasts and they could see their homes right there” but because of border closures, they were trapped on board, he added.
In a faxed statement on Thursday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was working with other ministries to safeguard the interests of Chinese crew, and that the government “highly values the health and safety of Chinese sailors overseas”. It added that Chinese embassies had sent staff to convey greetings, guidance and medical supplies to sailors.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chinese embassies overseas will do our best to help overseas Chinese crew, to solve the practical difficulties they face and protect their health, safety and legal rights,” it said, without mentioning what further steps it would take to help them return.
The foreign ministry’s consular protection hotline had previously said it could not do anything to help, and that any assistance was up to the Chinese embassy in the city where a cruise ship was docked. This Week in Asia has reached out to the Chinese embassies in the US and the Philippines for comment.
Pang Zhongying, distinguished professor of international relations at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao, said the central government could be trying to prevent another wave of infections from being imported into the mainland. He drew parallels to the comments of Zhang Hanhui, Beijing’s ambassador to Moscow, who in April slammed Chinese nationals who had fled to the border amid a surge in coronavirus infections in Russia.
Zhang, China’s former deputy minister of foreign affairs, said these nationals had “no moral bottom line” and described their approach of escaping to China as “despicable” in a discussion aired on state broadcaster CCTV.
Alfred Wu, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said preventing more imported cases was high up on Beijing’s list of priorities. “They are doing everything to make sure that there is no chance for the infection to be imported,” he said.
This would be done even if it meant leaving Chinese cruise workers in the lurch, he suggested. “In China, they always talk about collectivism. This is also the case here. They are emphasising the importance of sacrificing individual interests for the greater good.”
Wu said the best bet for Chinese cruise workers would be if governments of the countries where cruise ships were anchored appealed to Beijing to help get their workers home.
Pang from Ocean University said if the plight of the Chinese workers was made known, it might deal a blow to China’s aggressive rhetoric and “wolf warrior” diplomacy. “Chinese people would slowly, through these incidents, wake up to the fact that these wolf warriors are actually weaker than paper tigers,” he said.
Coco, the Chinese cruise worker, just wants to return safely after spending the better part of a year away from home, but said the recent spike in cases in Beijing could only pose greater challenges for her and those in her situation.
“As Chinese citizens, we hope the Chinese embassies and consuls can help to coordinate with the Chinese government and let us go back home,” she said. “Please don’t close the door on us, we have families waiting for us.”
Additional reporting by Echo Xie
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