New Zealand seafarers stranded at sea by their own government

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By Sofia Galani and Kevin Judkins

New Zealand has adopted a Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) that requires those travelling to New Zealand to be quarantine for two weeks (subsequently reduced to one week on 14 November 2021).

To support seafarers, New Zealand followed IMO Resolution MSC.473(ES.2) and designated seafarers as “key workers” providing an essential service in order to ‘facilitate safe and unhindered movement for embarking or disembarking a vessel’ (UNGA, A/75/L.37, 2020).

Accordingly, it enacted the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Maritime Border) Order (No 2) 2020 (Order 2020) with the purpose to contain the spread of Covid-19, whilst also “enabling the safe transfer of crew” (Section 3).

However, the current Covid legislation does not give New Zealand seafarers guaranteed placement in a Managed Isolation Facility, when seeking to be repatriated after signing off their vessel at an overseas port.

Conversely, the exemptions of Order 2020 (Sections 26, 27, 28) commonly referred to in the documentation of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) as the Maritime Allocation corridor,  give priority access to foreign seafarers who arrive in New Zealand by ship or aircraft to join a ship trading internationally, or be repatriated once signed off their vessel.

While the relevant sections do not distinguish between foreign and New Zealand seafarers, Kiwis are precluded from using this corridor when repatriating from overseas.

To the writers’ knowledge, only three New Zealand seafarers have availed the Maritime Allocation corridor, when signing off their international trading merchant vessels at New Zealand ports. Yet hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian seafarers have been able to enter and exit New Zealand to join and depart their vessels on a routine rostered basis.

New Zealand seafarers who have disembarked their vessels in Yangon, Sacramento and Walvis Bay, have been denied this same right of access to New Zealand. Earlier this year, MIQ created bunk space for 500 Russian and Ukrainian fishermen to enter the country en masse. Thus, proving that logistics are not the issue.

By requiring New Zealand seafarers to enter a lottery for a  place in the MIQ queue like other travellers who wish to enter the country, New Zealand has essentially failed to properly implement IMO Resolution MSC.473(ES.2).

Furthermore, the vagaries of the shipping industry further disadvantage New Zealand seafarers compared to shore-based New Zealand nationals who wish to enter the country: poor quality internet onboard vessels causes the MIQ site to time out; seafarers often do not know which port or which date they are due to pay off; crew managers do not issue flight tickets until the day before a seafarer is due off the vessel or rig, meaning that it is impossible to confirm a booked MIQ spot within the required 48-hour window.

This has created an unintended but very real anomaly for New Zealand seafarers working internationally; almost exclusively on vessels which do not trade to New Zealand, because they cannot make use of the benefits of Order 2020, being essentially discriminated and disadvantaged by their own country.

This has meant for hundreds of them that they are either stranded abroad unable to return home or are stuck home unable to take up employment opportunities out of fear that they will not be able to be repatriated once their employment contract ends.

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The New Zealand Government is now fully aware of the impact of Order 2020 on New Zealand seafarers and has been repeatedly urged to amend Order 2020 in order to enshrine the rights of New Zealand seafarers who work on foreign flag vessels.

Unfortunately, it has not been positive towards any immediate changes and continues to knowingly discriminate against and disadvantage its own nationals.

Once again, the New Zealand Government is urged to reconsider its approach and review its legislation and practices in order to rectify this unintended but very problematic legal error that has left hundreds of New Zealand seafarers stranded at sea.

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