A lifeline in rough seas

The war goes on, and hostilities continue to pose a threat to seafarers
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By Amy Liebthal
Communications Manager, ISWAN

When you head to your workplace each day, it would be safe to assume for most people that you do so without fear of being attacked, caught up in a war, or detained by foreign authorities for something completely out of your control.

However, this is not the reality for seafarers transiting through high risk waters or regions affected by geopolitical tensions and instability around the world.

Thousands of seafarers were impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, with many stranded on vessels in Ukrainian ports and some tragically killed during the conflict. Countless other seafarers and their families were displaced from their homes in Ukraine and faced financial crisis. The war goes on, and hostilities continue to pose a threat to seafarers entering high-risk areas in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

More recently, ships transiting the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden have become targets for hijackings and missile attacks by Houthi rebels, with three seafarers tragically killed in one missile attack in the Gulf of Aden back in March. The same month, the International Bargaining Forum’s Warlike Operations Area Committee unanimously agreed to designate the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden ‘Warlike’.

There has also been a rise in Somali pirate activity this year, with the ICC International Maritime Bureau reporting that Somali pirates are demonstrating mounting capabilities, targeting vessels at great distances from the Somali coast. And in April 2024, a container ship was seized by Iran amid escalating tensions in the middle east – just one example among many of ships becoming pawns in political maneuvering, with the safety and wellbeing of the crew hanging in the balance.

Such threats can be incredibly stressful for a crew member just trying to do their job and earn a living, and the sense of fear and uncertainty can take a serious toll on their mental health. Seafarers’ families back home are also affected, often not knowing the situation on board and fearful for the safety of their loved ones miles away at sea.

The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) is an international maritime charity which works to improve the lives of seafarers and their families with services, resources, strategies and advocacy. One of ISWAN’s services is SeafarerHelp – a free, confidential, 24-hour, multilingual helpline which provides emotional, wellbeing and practical support to seafarers and their families of any nationality.

Calls and messages to SeafarerHelp from Ukrainian seafarers and their families increased dramatically above their normal levels following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Many of these were seeking financial support from the Ukraine Crisis Support Fund managed by ISWAN, which offered one-time financial grants of up to US$500 to seafarers and their families impacted by the Ukraine crisis. More than 786 seafarers and their families received financial support to help with medical bills, children’s educational support, rent deposits, and living and emergency transport costs, relieving some of their emotional burden.

In the first quarter of 2024, ISWAN has been supporting seafarers who are concerned about the risks of transiting the Red Sea and areas at risk of piracy attack, or docking in Israel due to the conflict with Hamas. One seafarer reported that their vessel was fired upon by rockets and missiles in the Red Sea and, although it was not hit, the crew were extremely frightened by the experience and did not sleep alone for the next few days. ISWAN also provides emotional support to crews whose vessels have been detained or attacked by pirates – seafarers have contacted SeafarerHelp reporting that crew members are frustrated, stressed, traumatised and sometimes suicidal.

ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp offers a safe space and a non-judgmental listening ear for seafarers and their families to share their thoughts and feelings, and its trained helpline officers provide support, information and/or resources to allow individuals to make the best decisions for themselves to find a resolution. ISWAN has networks and contacts worldwide to refer cases to if further mental health support is needed.

No seafarer or family member has to deal with their struggles alone in these turbulent times – ISWAN remains available around the clock to provide support to anyone who needs it.


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