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Why Indian sailors, set to return home soon, were stranded in Chinese waters for over 4 months

Sixteen Indian sailors aboard Swiss-Italian cargo vessel MV Anastasia are expected to return by 14 February after the vessel carried out a crew change in Japan.

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New Delhi: Indian sailors stranded in Chinese waters aboard Swiss-Italian cargo vessel MV Anastasia will return home by 14 February, Union Minister of State for Ports, Shipping and Waterways Mansukh L. Mandaviya said in a tweet Wednesday. 

The vessel had been stuck in anchorage near Caofeidian port in China’s Hebei Province since 20 September 2020. The Chinese authorities didn’t allow the ship to dock or make a crew change. 

Now, according to a PTI report, the vessel was scheduled to leave Japan Wednesday and is expected to reach India Sunday. 

Of the total 18 sailors, two are foreign nationals — one Russian and one Filipino — who will be returning to their respective countries while the remaining are Indians, Abdulgani Serang, general secretary, National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), told ThePrint. He added that MV Anastasia had made a crew change at Iwakuni Port in Japan.

Last month, 23 seafarers aboard vessel Jag Anand, which was also stranded in Chinese waters for similar reasons, returned to India. The ship was stuck in anchorage near Jingtang port in Hebei province since 13 June 2020. 

ThePrint explains why the Indian sailors aboard Anastasia were stuck in Chinese waters.

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Why the sailors were stranded

MV Anastasia and Jag Anand were transporting coal from Australia to China when they were stuck at anchorage in Chinese waters. In January, there were allegedly 15-18 other ships in Jingtang port carrying the same Australian coal that had also not been allowed to offload and leave. 

MV Anastasia and Jag Anand had, at the time, been refused permission by Chinese authorities to offload their cargo and leave on grounds of Covid-19-related restrictions.

On 24 December, the Ministry of External Affairs had observed that other ships, which arrived after these two, were allowed to offload cargo and leave, and the reasons for this were unclear.

The process of offloading cargo and leaving the port normally takes a ship about one week. When it approaches a port, a chartering agent is informed while the ship stays in anchorage for a few days. Port authorities then give the ship a berth to offload cargo after which it leaves.

The situation with these two ships was believed to be the outcome of the China-Australia trade row. Around mid-December last year, China officially announced a ban on Australia’s $14 billion coal imports as tensions between the two countries intensified, following which Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused Beijing of violating international trade rules.

However, there was speculation that the problem began in June when ships carrying Australian coal across the ocean began to be stranded at several Chinese ports, according to a Bloomberg analysis

“The crewmen appear to be caught in the middle of a geopolitical feud with hundreds of millions of dollars of paid-for coal hanging in the balance,” noted a New York Times report

While the cargo worth could not be ascertained for Anastasia, Jag Anand was carrying consignment worth upwards of $15 million, according to industry estimates.

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What difficulties did the stranded crew face?

In late December, videos emerged online of the stranded sailors describing life on board as “jail-like” and holding placards pleading to go home. 

“We did nothing wrong. Yet, we got caught up in this,” Anastasia crew member Raja Louis was quoted to have said. The crews were facing mental health issues and were surviving on no medical support and poor quality of drinking water. 

India is party to the International Maritime Organization and several United Nations conventions relating to the working conditions of seafarers, their safety, identity and other welfare measures for the seafaring community at large. 

However, it is the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), ratified by India on 9 October 2015, which includes a consolidation of all up-to-date standards regarding life at sea. 

According to the MLC, the maximum continuous period that a seafarer should serve on board a vessel without leave is 11 months. However, seafarers aboard Anastasia and Jag Anand were at anchorage for six months which extended many of their tours to up to 18-20 months.

Serang said the issue of labour rights violations in this case, especially when crew change is denied, has to be seen in context of Covid-19 and international politics.

A commercial dispute or does it concern international law?

Speaking to ThePrint, a spokesperson from Mumbai-based Great Eastern Shipping Company Ltd, which owns Jag Anand, said despite the fact that the shipping companies reached out at diplomatic levels in India and China for help, this was a commercial and humanitarian issue rather than one concerning international law.  

“We did a crew change at Japan’s Chiba Port after coming to a commercial negotiation with all parties involved from the cargo owner to charterers. We were mainly waiting for a go-ahead from the receiver of the cargo, a Chinese entity, without which we would have faced legal action,” the spokesperson said. 

The Chinese authorities had a “limited role” to play when it came to offloading cargo, added the spokesperson. 

A statement released 9 February by MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, which maintains and runs MV Anastasia, also said the option for crew change was stifled by “commercial parties involved in the selling and buying of the cargo onboard [who] were caught in the ensuing political uncertainty around the trade issue”. 

The company added, “MSC prioritised the Japanese option as the quickest and most efficient way to provide the necessary relief for the crew and to enable the ship to subsequently continue in service as it may be required by the charterers.”

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