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Ship crew stranded off UAE coast in legal dispute lose hope for return

Families of seafarers stranded at sea on abandoned vessels anchored off the UAE coast are losing hope that their legal cases will be resolved and the men can soon return home.

Crew on board three ships, owned by the same company, had hoped to be rescued by early February but poor weather and legal deadlock has delayed their recovery.

Financial difficulties and legal dispute has locked one of those vessels, the MV Azraqmoiah container ship, into an anchorage about 50km off Hamriya Port, Sharjah. And as the crew are without travel documents, they are unable to come ashore.

It has been almost three years since its captain, Ayyappan Swaminathan saw his wife and 8-year-old daughter, who live in Tamil Nadu.

The first day at school, and losing her baby teeth are just some of the moments missed by Captain Ayyappan in the life of young Aniha.

“I miss my wife and daughter from the bottom of my heart,” said the Indian national.

“I feel guilty not being able to pay for her school fees, as I have not been paid for 19 months.

“Last night I called Aniha and she started crying, asking when I will be home.

“Her friends ask why her grandfather goes to see her school events, rather than me.

“It is very difficult for everyone.”

An unpaid $144,000 (Dh529,000) bill for a fuel supplier is understood to be at the centre of the dispute

No cargo was on board the MV Azraqmoiah when it was detained by the UAE coastguard in April 2018, and all crew documents seized.

It is one of three vessels owned by Elite Marine Way Services that is locked in a similar predicament, with more than 30 seafarers affected.

“I am very worried about my husband’s condition,” said Menaga, Capt Ayyaappa’s wife.

“Without his salary, we are all struggling. I have had to depend on others, but how long can they help us for?

“We have been told the Federal Transport Authority has filed a case against the company, but court proceedings will take a long time.

“Rent and school fees need to be paid, and we have other expenses just to survive.

“Our town has been badly affected by cyclone Gaja, so our situation has become a lot worse.”

It is a month since legal officials and FTA representatives met the crew on board to take statements, and reassure the men they would soon be ashore.

Rough weather has played a role in delays, but the crew remain on-board, desperately awaiting news of their rescue.

As the days and weeks drag on, with limited supplies and power on board, family of the stranded crew are clinging on to the faint hope their loved ones will be repatriated before summer.

Until then, Capt Ayyappan eagerly awaits any scrap of information on their case.

Poor hygiene and bed bugs are becoming a regular problem in the crapped living conditions.

“We are burning wood to cook food on board,” said shipmate Aniket Deulkar.

“We have to keep our vessel in a blackout at night due to power shortages. Because of this, last month we had a collision with another vessel.

“For our families, the financial conditions are getting critical as the days are passing.”

Sourabh Naskar has been on-board for 18 months, without pay since December, 2017.

“We haven’t got enough food and water, no blankets, pillows or toothpaste,” he said.

“Our company has never done any type of fumigation, so our cabins are full of bed bugs.

“It is almost impossible to sleep.

“I can’t take this situation any more. I’m feeling sick, mentally and physically.”

Stricter regulations on vessels entering UAE waters without comprehensive crew insurance to protect salaries are in the pipeline, although the FTA is yet to confirm details of when they may be ratified.

Collectively, the MV Azraqmoiah crew is owed more than $250,000 in unpaid salaries.

Maritime law prevents the crew from abandoning the vessel, as an unmanned ship would pose a collision risk to other boats in a busy shipping lane, particularly at night.

Briton David Hammond, a former lawyer and founder of Human Rights at Sea, became involved in legal aid for seafarers in 2013, and says change in maritime law is urgently required.

“There are very few maritime human rights for seafarers on a global platform,” he said.

“What the UAE is doing with proposing new national and insurance legislation and better coastguard training is potentially a game changer.”

The charity has 244 missing seafarers registered on its website by family members. They are mostly fisherman, with the most recent logged on February 6 this year.

“There is a lack of knowledge, and lack of registering of abandoned vessels,” said Mr Hammond.

“Because of a historical lack of acceptance to address these issues, it has created a global problem.”
Source: The National

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