The poor nations that supply the flag offer little help to the crew on abandoned ships; ‘Urgent solution needed before it’s too late’
For more than two months, Hajj Abdullah’s requests for aid had swarmed around the international shipping system without any help. The ship’s London-based insurer canceled its coverage stating that the ship was not seaworthy. The Lebanese, Egyptian and Syrian crew of the ship were abandoned by a Lebanese owner. They were sailing under the jurisdiction of Sierra Leone, whose tricolor flag flew above the deck.
The Sierra Leone Maritime Administration controls hundreds of ships transporting cargo worth billions of dollars, relying on a management company operating on the outskirts of Limassol, Cyprus. The crew petitioned Cyrus’ office for help. Under the laws of the West African nation, its maritime officers were not required to do much for Haj Abdullah.
“An urgent solution is needed before it is too late,” said an email sent on behalf of the crew to the Cyprus office. “People’s lives are in real danger.”
“Good day,” said one of the responses from the Cyprus office. “Arguments[sic] Be informed that the matter is being investigated and is being resolved at present.”
The troubles of Haj Abdullah reflect the dysfunction at the core of an industry responsible for 90% of global trade. Last year, a record number of sailors were released on cargo ships, meaning they went without pay for more than two months. This year is on its way to get worse. According to the International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations, currently, more than 1,000 sailors are stranded on ships without pay and in many cases provisions.
All cargo ships have to fly the flag of one or the other nation. The shipowners agree to pay the nation an amount equal to the license to fly its flag. Many of those countries, in turn, hire management companies to oversee the ships.
Nearly all of this year’s abandoned sailors were on ships that sailed under the flags of small, often impoverished nations whose governments lacked the resources to intervene in the distress of one of their ships. Some, including Sierra Leone, have not signed international treaties that require ships to pay for sailors stranded at sea and insured to bring them back. Most of the world’s goods move under such flags.
For shippers, benefits include fewer taxes and fewer regulations. For the crew, there are mostly risks. If a ship is abandoned by its owner, they are often on their own.
“We’ve been here on deck for three months,” a sailor aboard Hajj Abdullah said in a text message to Businesshala. He sent a picture of his crew mates, in sheets of paper: “Hajj,” “Abdullah,” “Aid,” “America.”
The Journal attempted to contact the Lebanese company that owns the ship, Al Marwa Shipping Limited, by visiting the Beirut address and trying phone numbers listed on shipping registries. On 8 December, journalist Ghasan Bakri arrived, who said he was the owner. He said he had stopped paying the crew because they had damaged the ship’s bathroom, kitchen and cabin, and lost $50,000 worth of diesel at sea.
“I tell them, ‘You tell me how we lost $50,000 in diesel,'” the owner said. “I tell them, ‘Okay, I stop the ship. I don’t pay.’ ,
In an email, the crew called the owner’s allegations ridiculous. It said the damage was caused by a tornado.
This week, Mr Bakri said, he paid some of the crew’s salaries. The sailors, however, say that no one has been paid in full and they remain on the ship, reluctant to leave until they have been paid in full.
Journalists also visited the company’s Cyprus office, which was hired by the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration to oversee its flagged vessels. An official there said the staff were too busy to meet. The company declined to comment further.
The Sierra Leone Maritime Administration is the government agency that regulates Sierra Leone maritime traffic from the capital of Freetown. When the Journal visited that office, about 20 officers were tapping on mobile phones or sitting behind old desktop computers. Many employees said they had never heard of Hajj Abdullah, had no idea how many ships in the world fly the Sierra Leone flag, and were surprised to learn that the organization was administered from Cyprus.
Several days after that visit, Mohamed Kamara, a spokesman for the agency, said in an interview that all ships flying the Sierra Leone flag are carefully screened and monitored, and that responsibility rests with the company in Cyprus. He said that there is a shortage of qualified personnel in the West African country.
The Government of Sierra Leone forwarded written questions from the Journal to the Cyprus Office, which responded in a letter to the Government, which was reviewed by the Journal. “We, as always, have been actively involved in this matter,” it said. “We would like to assure you of our full and continued cooperation and express our appreciation for the continued support we have received from the Government of Sierra Leone.”
The Ministry of Transport and Aviation of Sierra Leone is responsible for maritime administration. Balogun Koroma, who ran that ministry until 2017, said he had never been told the details of contracts with ships flying the nation’s flag, including basic information such as how much was paid per ship to Sierra Leone. In June, Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission indicted six senior officials of the Maritime Administration on corruption charges. “What is going on in that place is close to being a mafia operation,” said Mr. Koroma. An agency spokesperson denied that allegation.
The first email from the union representative of Haj Abdullah’s party arrived at the Cyprus office of the Flag Administrator for Sierra Leone on 15 September.
“We are contacting the Flag State Administration of the ship, your office to bring to your attention the very difficult situation of the crew,” the representative wrote. The emails said those on board the ship had not been paid for four months, were running out of food and were abandoned on the Somali coast. The flag was the responsibility of the state “to fulfill the basic rights of the sailor,” it said.
“We will contact the managers,” replied the Cyprus office. “Once we have an update we will notify you accordingly.”
The Hajj Abdullah, a rusty, 44-year-old bulk carrier, was sailing from the Persian Gulf to Tanzania, manned by an 11-man crew and carrying about $750,000 in sulfur, when a storm hit the hull. opened a crack in According to the crew members and their union, water began to fill the empty passageways around the deck.
The dwindling supply of diesel was being eroded by seawater. A shipping agent in a small port town in northern Somalia agreed before the crew enough fuel to reach Mogadishu in barrels delivered by fishing boats. When they reached the Somali capital, the fuel bill had not been paid, so the ship could not get any more. Haj Abdullah was trapped.
“I’ve been sailing for 35 years, and nothing like this has happened to me,” said one crew member.
On the ship, they wanted to go home, but the port of Mogadishu did not let them out of the boat. The port lacked facilities to manage an abandoned cargo ship laden with sulphur. The owner had stopped responding to the crew. The embassies of Lebanon and Egypt, whose citizens were aboard, did not intervene.
The last option was Sierra Leone. On 6 October, the Flag State Office in Cyprus indicated in an email that the matter would be resolved soon. “We will be back with our updates as soon as possible,” it said.
Until World War II, most cargo ships carried the flags of the nations where they were located. The Union Jack flew halfway. American shipping companies had protection from the US Navy, but had to hire unionized American workers.
Although flying the flag of another country meant leaving American defenses at sea, it also meant…