Frustration builds as fear of terrorism ensnares foreign crews

In the spring of 2003, when a Canadian-flag ship called at Ballard, Wash., the crew expected their vessel to be laid up for a few weeks for some much needed repairs. It was also a welcome respite for the crew, who had plans to escape the tedium of the ship and shop at local businesses.

Plans changed, however, when the crew, most of whom were Filipino, were told that they would not be allowed ashore for the entire yard period. They lacked visas, immigration officials said, and needed to stay on the ship.

The ship sailed for a Vancouver shipyard instead. “I don’t want to come to the U.S. anymore,” a crewmember who refused to give his name said. “And I think a lot of ships are going to continue to be diverted to Mexican or Canadian ports if this keeps up.”

This past fall, when a Cypriot-flag bulk carrier called on Portsmouth, N.H., to unload salt, the second assistant engineer, a Ukrainian citizen, was suffering from an abscessed tooth and needed to see a doctor. He was in terrible pain and also lacked medication. He, like the rest of the crew, must stay aboard the ship, he was told, since he did not have a visa. The ship’s previous stop was near Pisco, Peru, a desert wasteland lacking basic services, including a phone. The next stop was to be New Orleans, where they could expect a similar greeting.

“This is like the Soviet Union,” said the Ukrainian, who refused to give his name, in an interview aboard the vessel. He then looked out a porthole and pointed to a pickup truck parked on the pier. Inside, a man was sitting behind the wheel, staring vacantly at the ship, the engine idling. It was this security guard’s job to ensure that no one left the ship, not even stepping ashore to cross the 30 feet to the terminal’s pay phone.

“In the Soviet Union at least I could go ashore — somebody watching all the time — but I could go ashore. Now, I go to any other port in the world, except in the U.S., and I can go ashore. Here?” He threw up his arms and walked away.

These types of stories, far from being isolated incidents, are increasingly common in U.S. ports, as a post–Sept. 11 mindset becomes the norm for customs and immigration officials greeting foreign-flag vessels. Ships’ crews are growing increasingly frustrated by the situation. They can no longer leave the ship for any reason, except in cases of extreme emergency and only then with concerted effort on the part of ships’ agents, local health officials and shore-based advocates like religious charities.

The situation is not the result of a new rule; it’s the result of enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001, of an old rule, one that requires all foreigners entering the United States to have visas. In practice the rule had been largely ignored for mariners, because of the bind it created. International convention allows shipboard personnel to enjoy shore leave — without visas. With fears of waterborne terrorism on the rise, that special status enjoyed by mariners has ended.

“There is no connection whatever linking seafarers with terrorists,” said Doug Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights in New York. In fact, Stevenson said that the animosity created by disaffected crewmembers might backfire.

“If we’re treating crews as terrorists, they’re going to get discouraged. The result is that you get an angry crew who are not willing to report security problems. We need their skills; they know their domain. But if he’s being punished for being a foreigner, why’s he going to report anything?”

Why, then, don’t foreign mariners simply get U.S. visas before shipping out? The hurdles are complex, including a new requirement that individuals appear in person at a U.S. consulate. This can represent a journey of hundreds of miles, complicated by the fact that many U.S. consulates are being closed for security reasons.

To obtain visas, mariners are required to present a letter of employment to consulates, but to receive such a letter, an employee, and therefore the employer, must prove where and when the ship will be calling on the United States. This must be documented long before the ship expects to call on a port. But given the changing nature of a ship’s charters and schedules, this is a seemingly impossible task.

The solution appears to be the introduction of a new identity card, one that cannot be forged easily, using biometric technology (see PM #75), and that can offer U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials the confidence to allow foreign mariners entrance into the United States without visas. The International Labour Organization proposed exactly this in an international convention, ILO-185. However, ILO-185 has not been ratified by the United States, pending an agreement over the appropriate technology of such a card and pending a U.S. agreement over whether the cards could allow for a visa exemption for seafarers.

“No one has ratified 185 because the U.S. hasn’t,” Stevenson said. “This is a very high priority for MarAd and the Coast Guard, but Homeland Security has to get onboard. We want the mariner ID cards to take the place of visa requirements for seafarers in the form of an exemption. It’s that simple.” The Center for Seafarers’ Rights recommended to the Department of Homeland Security in the fall of 2003 that ILO-185 be ratified.

The U.S. Coast Guard supports the implementation of such biometric ID cards, according to Capt. Kevin Dale, chief of port and vessel security for the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C. But a deadlock remains: Without ratification of ILO-185, no progress will occur, and mariners will remain trapped aboard ships. Meanwhile, immigration officials, responding to security pressure, will continue to enforce the new interpretation of the law.

Crewmembers are also being punished for the existence of stowaways. Previously, the danger of stowing away aboard a ship was limited to the stowaways themselves. Numerous reports exist of stowaways being thrown overboard by crewmembers who were afraid of reprisal by the shipowners intent on avoiding repatriation fees — a cost necessarily incurred by the companies. Today the existence of stowaways aboard a foreign vessel is reportedly a red flag to immigration officials, who respond by locking down the ship, even if visas had been arranged by the crew. (The Center for Seafarers’ Rights outlined the problem in a November 2003 statement entitled “Stowaways endangered by U.S. shore leave policy.” The statement was directed to the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security and MarAd.)

Another layer of hassle is brewing: terminal operators have submitted security plans to the Coast Guard, which has until July 1 to respond to individual security plans as part of the new Transportation Security Act. Instead of creating plans for the processing of foreign crew, many terminals have announced that they will simply prevent crew from leaving their ships — thus saving themselves the added labor.

“It’s all getting a little out of control,” Stevenson said.

By Professional Mariner Staff