LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Isolation, abandonment, trafficking: These are some of the issues facing the estimated 1.5 million seafarers and fishermen around the world who are responsible for 90 percent of global trade and providing over 110 tons of seafood for the world’s table.
“Seafarers and fishermen are vulnerable at the best of time. The lives that they lead are largely unseen, and therefore they can all too easily fall prey to those who would choose to exploit or abuse them,” said Martin Foley, the national director of Apostleship of the Sea UK.
Founded in 1920 in Glasgow, the Apostleship of the Sea provides practical and pastoral care to all seafarers in hundreds of ports around the world.
It is estimated about a third of all seafarers are Catholic, with many coming from the Philippines and Catholic areas of India.
Every year, the Church observes Sea Sunday to draw attention to the plight of those working on the world’s oceans. This year, it is commemorated on July 8.
This year, the Apostleship of the Sea is teaming with the Vatican-sponsored Santa Marta Group to try and fight human trafficking and modern slavery in the maritime industry.
The Santa Marta Group is a global alliance of international police chiefs, bishops and religious communities working to better coordinate their efforts to help the victims of modern slavery.
It is named for the Vatican guesthouse which serves as the papal residence, and Pope Francis hosted the first meeting of the association, giving it his support and blessing.
Last week, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster – who is also the president of the Santa Marta Group – attended an event on board the HQS Wellington in London’s Tilbury docks to draw attention to the problem.
The cardinal said there were cases of seafarers and fishermen being effectively imprisoned on their ships, not paid their wages and held in a modern-day form of press-ganging and slavery.
He also recalled his first visit to Tilbury docks in 2015.
“I went on board and got a feel of the confined quarters in which seafarers lived and all the dangerous edges they negotiate all the time, with huge amounts of heavy equipment and other machinery,” Nichols said.
The Santa Marta Group and the Apostleship of the Sea are now hosting a series of workshops in ports around the world to educate chaplains, volunteers, port officials and police about the problem of human trafficking and modern slavery at sea.
The first workshop took place earlier this year at Tilbury, and the second took place in Santos, Brazil.
Foley told Crux the worst aspects of trafficking – “where people are deprived of their freedom … they are physically, verbally abused” – is at the “extreme end” of what is seen by the chaplains of the Apostleship of the Sea.
“But there are also the more low-level issues that perhaps occur more frequently, which wouldn’t be considered trafficking or modern slavery, like non-payment of wages or ship abandonment,” he said.
Ship abandonment is when seafarers are left at a port, often far from home and without their promised wages.
This issue was also pointed out by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, the head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Human Integral Development, in a July 4 statement.
“We express our sincere gratitude to all Stella Maris chaplains and volunteers who for months and months have and are still providing material, spiritual, legal and psychological support to several crews of abandoned vessels,” Turkson said.
The cardinal also complained that many seafarers are also denied shore leave and ship visits from seafarers’ welfare personnel.
“Turnaround time in the ports is reduced to the minimal, leaving the crew with inadequate personal time to rest and relax. In numerous ports, crews are finding it increasingly difficult to get permission to go ashore, either because of company policy or because restrictive and discriminatory regulations imposed by governments,” he said.
“Many of Apostleship of the Sea chaplains and ship visitors are denied entry into ports or prevented from boarding vessels to provide material and spiritual welfare to seafarers who reach shore after weeks at sea,” Turkson continued.
“We request governments and ship owners to put into place all the necessary mechanisms to protect the life of the people at sea,” the cardinal said.
The Apostleship of the Sea has drawn attention to the fact that even if they are not being abused or taken advantage of, the life of a seafarer is still dangerous and lonely: They may spend up to a year at a time away from home and often work in harsh conditions.
Foley told Crux that in addition to seeing to the spiritual needs of seafarers, the Apostleship of the Sea can also provide practical help.
“Chaplains are there to serve seafarers and fishermen…they can serve as advocates for seafarers and fishermen when they are for whatever reason unable to speak on behalf of themselves, chaplains can speak on their behalf – respecting any confidences, but also drawing attention to the plight of seafarers and fishermen with people who can help them,” he said.