Over 600 i-Kiribati seafarers trapped overseas due to the COVID-19 pandemic have now been repatriated, the International Chamber of Shipping announced Monday.

The final six seafarers touched down in Tarawa on Monday, marking the end of a two-year repatriation effort led by a coalition of employers, unions and NGO working with the govenment of Kiribati.

The i-Kiribati seafarers, over 600 of them, had been stranded overseas, some for nearly two years, due to pandemic-related global travel restrictions and protocols which have contributed to the “crew change crisis” that has stranded hundreds of thousands of seafarers since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Kiribati government has operated a ‘zero-covid’ policy during the pandemic, implementing total lockdowns to inbound travel. Seafarer employers began housing the i-Kiribati seafarers in Denmark and Germany in early 2021 as their contracts finished. Seafarers were provided room and board by their employer while awaiting a change in Kiribati’s border protocols. All the seafarers received their full dose of the vaccine if they had not been vaccinated while on contract.

The seafarers began returning home in groups beginning in November 2020. By April 2021, 362 Kiribati seafarers returned via Fiji to Tarawa on flights organised by the Kiribati government. In November 2021, 141 Kiribati seafarers returned on a vessel hired by their employer.

At the start of 2022, 73 seafarers were repatriated in groups of around 10 on flights chartered by the Kiribati government, employers, and a religious organisation that supports seafarers.

The final six seafarers have now been repatriated from Fiji and will complete their quarantine in a government facility, as have all the repatriated seafarers both before departing and upon arrival, the ICS said.

“I am pleased to hear that these seafarers will finally be reunited with their loved ones, some after being stranded overseas for nearly two years, thanks to extensive collaboration among all stakeholders in the industry, labour organizations, governments and the UN,” said IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim. “Their story of extended time at sea – and then on land to get home – has been repeated many times over throughout the pandemic. Seafarers need to be designated as key workers by all States, so that their travel and repatriation can be facilitated.“

“It is a great relief to know all seafarers safely home after more than two years,” said Gaby Bornheim, President of Verband Deutscher Reeder. “Responsible ship-owners have worked hard to achieve this, even though none of the delays has been their fault. We are also happy to acknowledge that in the crisis we have experienced the firm social partnership with unions and NGOs who have been instrumental for the successful return. The return of the seafarers would not have been possible without the tremendous support of international organizations such as ILO and IMO. It has proven that multilateralism is to the benefit of people.”

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By Mike Schuler