At any given time, about one million workers are working onboard the world’s merchant fleet, most of them hailing from the global South, especially South and Southeast Asia. These mariners have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic: with so many nations shutting their doors to foreigners they are trapped on board ships for many months at a time, denied shore leave. Worse, they cannot be relieved. Normally these workers serve out their contract and then disembark and fly to their homes for time with their families, but both the receiving countries and their home countries are putting obstacles in the way of their entry out of coronavirus fears.
Last week Pope Francis drew attention to their plight, thanking mariners for their sacrifices during the pandemic in a video addressed to the world’s seafarers:
In these past months, your lives and your work have seen significant changes; you have had to make, and are continuing to make, many sacrifices. Long periods spent aboard ships without being able to disembark, separation from families, friends and native countries, fear of infection… All these things are a heavy burden to bear, now more than ever.
I would like to say something to all of you. Know that you are not alone and that you are not forgotten. Your work at sea often keeps you apart from others, but you are close to me in my thoughts and prayers, and in those of your chaplains and the volunteers of Stella Maris.
“Enough is enough,” says Fr. Sinclair Oubre, spiritual moderator of the Catholic Labor Network and a member of the Seafarers International Union who ministers to mariners in Port Arthur, Texas. “If countries can’t figure out how to accommodate crew changes they should learn to live without the oil, computers, cars and other commodities that mariners bring them.”