Mariner IDs to incorporate fingerprints

Mariners around the world will soon be carrying fingerprint-based identification cards, following a meeting in Geneva of the International Labour Organization and the International Maritime Organization.

Last updated in 1958 (ILO 108), the new Convention on Seafarers’ Identity Documents could go into effect at the end of 2004, but organizations within the United States remain divided about how to implement the process to comply with international standards and at the same time meet domestic concerns.

For example, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration is developing plans for an ID card for the 5 million transportation workers in the United States. As transportation workers, mariners would be included in the mix. The Transportation Worker Identification Credential is a year away from implementation, according to Capt. Kevin Dale, the U.S. Coast Guard’s chief of port and vessel security in Washington, D.C.

Such a card would eclipse the current Z-card issued by the Coast Guard to U.S. mariners. Z-cards comply with the 1958 convention.

The new international document offers mariners certain rights in other countries, such as the right to enter port without a visa. As of December 2002, the United States became the only country that does not offer the same privilege to foreign seafarers entering U.S. ports in return. That is why the United States will not ratify the new convention, according to Dale.

“We don’t have to ratify the convention to conform with the convention,” Dale said.

In other words, the TWIC card issued to U.S. mariners could comply with the new convention in terms of biometric identification technology, but the United States could continue to deny visa exemptions to foreign mariners. Formerly, crewmembers were exempt from appearing in person at a consular office; they could be part of a crew-list visa. The U.S. State Department now requires foreign mariners to appear personally at a consular office.

The Center for Seafarers’ Rights of the Seamen’s Church Institute in New York opposes the elimination of the personal-appearance waiver, which the State Department announced last year. To comply with the new law, ship operators will have to bring the entire crew of a ship to a U.S. consular office for foreign seafarers to receive D-1 crew-list visas for shore leave in the United States — an impractical, perhaps impossible, expectation.

“The State Department responded to international criticism over its intention to eliminate crew-list visas by making them impossible to get,” said Douglas Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights in a statement. “This action also controverts efforts in the worldwide maritime community to reach a consensus on an international seafarer’s identity card.”

Maritime officials fear that would-be terrorists could pose as mariners and enter U.S. ports undetected. In this context, an update of seafarer identity cards was cited as necessary to thwart the falsification of documents.

“There was a widespread problem of falsification of documents,” Dale said. “The new convention is a great step forward. For one, the new card will demonstrate the identity of a person, and two, we know that person is a bona fide seafarer. We’ve raised the bar.”

Even without the problems posed by the United States, implementation of a seafarer’s identity card remains a difficult issue. Biometrics technology has been criticized as a complicated and expensive process — especially if it’s expected to be foolproof.

By Professional Mariner Staff