ROME — Vulnerable to abuse and hardship, seafarers’ dignity and welfare must be protected around the world, the Vatican foreign minister said.

“There are thousands of seafarers who are currently stranded on ships well beyond the term of their original contracts and who are unable to be repatriated due to COVID-related travel restrictions,” said Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Vatican secretary for relations with states.

“Furthermore, there are seafarers who, because of lockdowns or other similar constraints, are unable to join their sea crews and secure their salary,” he added, according to a press release Dec. 8 from Stella Maris, the Catholic Church’s global maritime charity.

The archbishop made his remarks Dec. 7 at the 32nd session of the International Maritime Organization’s general assembly, which was being held Dec. 5-15. The London-based organization is a United Nations’ agency that promotes safety and security in the shipping industry, sets global standards and advocates the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships.

In his speech, the archbishop reiterated the Vatican’s support for the International Maritime Organization and those member states working to protect the basic human rights and the fair and integral development of all seafarers as well as to protect the environment.

He said that seafarers are vulnerable to violence and abuse at sea, including pirate attacks and modern slavery.

“This is deplorable and severely affects their families as well,” he said, adding that the pandemic has brought these violations into greater focus; many seafarers are still being denied shore leave and access to welfare services, as well.

He added that “the IMO has an essential role to play in urging the international community to take into consideration more safe and regular migration pathways for the large numbers of people migrating by sea in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels.”

The Catholic Church supports seafarers and fishers worldwide through the Stella Maris charity, making it the largest ship-visiting network in the world, according to the charity’s press release.

Operating out of more than 300 ports in more than 50 countries, “the charity improves the lives of seafarers and fishers through its local chaplains and seafarer centers, expert information, advocacy and spiritual support,” it said.

About 90 percent of world trade is transported by ship, according to the charity. “However, the life of a seafarer can be dangerous and lonely. They may spend up to a year at a time away from home, separated from their family and loved ones, often working in harsh conditions.”