Off the coast of Kenya in Mombasa sits a fishing vessel with 16 international crew, which has not moved for six months.
In June 2021, FV RA Horakhty's owner abandoned the ship, leaving the crew without pay or food and in the past three months, they have had no fuel to run the vessel’s generator. They are now forced to use candles at night.
The crew — three Koreans, seven Vietnamese and six Indonesians — are now living inside the Kenyan flagged dilapidated fishing vessel docked at the Liwatoni Fisheries Jetty, depending on well-wishers for food and water.
The crew complain that their fundamental rights under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 are constantly being violated.
“The vessel ran out of diesel leaving us in the dark at night and also, we cannot communicate since we can’t charge our phones. Our lives have changed from self-independent to beggars. This is sad,” said Captain Seo Hyundo.
He wants the courts to allow them to auction the vessel to recover salary arrears.
"We haven’t received our wages for the past eight months. Apart from lack of money, we are more concerned about our families since we can barely communicate with them due to the situation we are on here," he said.
Captain Hyundo left Korea on June 16, 2020, aboard fishing vessel FV RA Horakhty. All was well until June this year when the ship docked at the Mombasa port and his employer ended communication with the crew.
The captain said since they entered Kenyan waters, the owner of the vessel allegedly abandoned the 16 crew members.
Catholic church-owned international seafarers association Stella Maris has come in handy to help the group get basics.
"We were informed of the crew’s dire situation by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) inspector Betty Makena, so we went to visit the vessel to assess the situation and see how best we could help. We invited the local Mission to Seafarers team to assist in our response,” said Stella Maris Mombasa port chaplain Margaret Masibo.
The ITF inspector, Makena, described the situation of the team as dire and she has initiated a court process to auction the vessel to help the crew recover their wages.
“The situation is becoming hopeless since the team hasn’t received any money from their employer for eight months including other costs to run the vessels, which now amounts to close to $5,000. We hope the court will come to our rescue to auction the vessel to recover the amount,” said Ms Makena.
The FV RA Horakhty is one of the hundreds of cargo ships abandoned by owners over the past two decades.
The case illustrates a wider problem by seafarers and fishermen from foreign countries.
According to the International Labour Organisation abandonment of seafarers database, 57 ships have been reported abandoned since the start of this year.
When the International Maritime Organisation (IMO)'s formal database first began in 2004, there were 20 to 30 cases a year.
Maritime expert Andrew Mwangura says ship abandonment is among the many challenges that seafarers face globally.
He said Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the situation, noting that between 2020 and 2021, at least 76 cases of vessels being abandoned were recorded.
“The International Labour Organisation together with IMO began keeping records of abandoned ships in the past 17 years. Annually approximately 20 to 25 ships were being abandoned at various ports,” said Mwangura.
Mid last year, 11 crew members of general cargo ship MV Jihan, which was abandoned at the Port of Mombasa, managed to obtain a court order to auction the vessel after they were stranded at the port for close to two years.
The FV RA Horakhty crew say they have also moved to court but are having challenges in accessing court files.
The seafarers had sued the owners of the vessel but they lament they are yet to get the results of their application, which they filed under a certificate of urgency on December 8.
The crew have written a protest letter to the court after attempts to locate the case file failed to bear fruit.
“Our application is urgent in that our clients are stuck in a vessel and have not received their salaries from April 2021,” the letter signed by their advocate Ousa Okello of Okello Kinyanjui & Company Advocates reads.
Strained global trade
“Kindly, but very urgently let us know the status of the court file and whether it has been forwarded to the duty judge,” Okello said in the letter dated December 10, and addressed to Mombasa High Court Deputy Registrar.
Abandonment is defined by ITF as when an owner cuts ties with the ship, or otherwise fails to pay a crew's salary or get them home.
As the pandemic strained global trade, reports of abandonment hit record highs.
The process of dealing with such cases is complex and while legal wrangles play out, the crew and particularly the captain, who is often made the legal guardian of the vessel, can be effectively imprisoned on abandoned vessels.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) requires countries to take necessary measures to ensure that ship owners or merchants in the registry are adequately identifiable to ensure full accountability.
But it appears that international regulations are not adhered to in many cases. In 2020, there were several attempts to reach the owner of the Russian-owned cargo ship MV Jihan that was abandoned at the Port of Mombasa, but he was not reachable.
The agents of the ship withdrew their services after failure to be paid. This forced Zanzibar, on whose flag the ship was sailing, to withdraw its flag and the ship finally became a stateless/flagless ship.
This opened a new chapter for the ship as the crew made a decision to move to court.
Mwangura, a maritime expert, says abandoned ships are often auctioned whenever a merchant becomes bankrupt or is unable to pay for services rendered.
“Some of the ship merchants are just rogue; they are also involved in tax evasion while others are involved in shady deals like drug trafficking. This can also make them abandon their ships,” he adds.
“Some of the ships’ owners disappear as soon as the tides turn against them, play cat and mouse, wait-and-see games and appear as soon as the auction process kicks off to buy the ship through their conduits. They may buy the ship at very low prices, making the seafarers lose quite a substantial amount of money in terms of accrued dues,” he added.
The ILO data shows that there have been 240 multi-national crew members of 20 ocean-going vessels abandoned at the Port of Mombasa since 1990.
The abandoned vessels include MV Nadji II, MV Jinan, MV Jelita, MV Debbie, MV Ville De Sima II, MT Jenlil, MT Beacon, FV Beira 9, FV Beira 7, FV Beira 3 and MV Aldabra.
Others are MV Equator Royal, MV Maheswaran,MV Natacha, MV Vicko, MV Siemeni, FV Horrizont I, MV Sea Johanna and MV Nikolay Nekrasov.