The writer is sSecretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping
The world breathed a sigh of relief when Russia reversed its recent decision to suspend its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative. But it reminded us how delicate the situation still is and how quickly people’s lives can be affected by a change in policy. As we approach 120 days of the grain corridor being in place, there are still questions to be answered about its future. One of the most urgent is how it can support the rescue of hundreds of people who have become de facto prisoners of war in Ukrainian ports.
Four hundred sailors shelter on board ships crossing the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, in ports such as Chornomorsk, Odessa and Pivdennyi. The grain corridor has been a great success and is expected to continue, but so far it has not been able to meet their needs. They are trapped by logistical problems, the danger of crossing an area of active conflict, and sometimes even the need to remain on the ship as reduced crews. Naturally, concerns about a global food crisis, which the agreement sought to address, should be high on everyone’s agenda. But we cannot afford to ignore a distinct humanitarian crisis in the Black Sea that has so far gone largely unnoticed.
It is urgent to ask the question: what becomes of the sailors stranded in these ports? Some 1,600 people have already been evacuated, but hundreds remain, many of them stranded there since March. Some ships lack supplies and drinking water, some sailors need quick medical attention. These non-grain carriers, such as container ships, often carry crews from dozens of different countries. However, as it stands, the grain corridor is not authorized for the use of evacuation ships stranded in port.
Since the start of the conflict, events beyond their control have kept individuals aboard more than 60 ships away from family and friends, well beyond a normal tour of duty. Seafarers are the backbone of trade around the world. They have maintained supply chains not only during this conflict, but during huge global challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Their silent suffering cannot be considered acceptable collateral damage.
In the coming months, there should be a provision to evacuate these sailors from the conflict zone as soon as possible. The alternative is no way to deal with the people who drive the flow of global trade. Stranded Sailors can no longer simply be left to languish with no indication of when they might leave.
The future of the grain corridor agreement must allow them to return home and resume their careers. Charities, seafarers’ unions and industry bodies are doing all they can on the ground to support crews and get them back where possible. Now they need the support of all parties to the current agreement to recognize the magnitude of this problem and commit to a practical evacuation solution.
Widespread agreement on what that might look like will of course require delicate manipulation and precise negotiations. When the initiative started in July, vessels stranded in participating ports but fit to carry grain were allowed to join and return. Now all remaining seagoing vessels should also be allowed to depart. The parties may see the possibility of widening the corridor or evacuating mutually agreed locations as an alternative option.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative was an important joint success between Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN. Part of this success is that it not only alleviated global concerns about food safety, but gave participating vessels and those on board assurances of their safety while carrying out the work. needed in the region. Almost 120 days later, it is now possible to go further and facilitate the rescue of hundreds of people from their confinement in the conflict zone.