The writer is secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping
The world breathed a sigh of relief when Russia reversed its recent decision to suspend its involvement in the Black Sea grain initiative. But it was a reminder of just how delicate the situation still is, and how quickly people’s lives can be impacted by a change in policy. As we approach 120 days of the grain corridor being in place, there are still questions which need 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 seafarers are sheltering on board ships across the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, in ports such as Chornomorsk, Odesa and Pivdennyi. The grain corridor has been a great success and should continue, but it has so far been unable to address their needs. They are trapped by logistical issues, the danger of crossing through an active conflict zone, even sometimes the need to stay on ship as skeleton crews. Naturally, concerns over a global food crisis, which the deal has sought to address, should be top of everyone’s agenda. But we cannot afford to ignore a separate humanitarian crisis in the Black Sea that has so far gone largely unnoticed.
The question urgently needs to be asked: what is to become of the seafarers trapped in these ports? Some 1,600 have been evacuated already, but hundreds remain, many of whom have been stuck there since March. Some ships are running low on supplies and clean water, some seafarers need prompt medical attention. These non-grain carriers, such as container ships, often have crews from dozens of different countries on board. Yet as it stands, the grain corridor is not authorised for the use of evacuating ships stuck at port.
Events beyond their control have kept individuals on more than 60 ships away from their families and friends since the beginning of the conflict, far beyond a normal tour of duty. Seafarers are the building blocks of trade around the world. They have kept supply chains going not just during this conflict, but during enormous global challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Their silent suffering cannot be seen as acceptable collateral damage.
In the coming months, there should be a provision to evacuate these seafarers from the conflict zone as soon as possible. The alternative is no way to treat the people who keep the global flow of trade moving. Stranded seafarers can no longer be left simply to languish with no indication of when they might leave.
The future of the grain corridor deal must allow them to return to their homes, and to resume their careers. Charities, seafarer unions and industry bodies are doing their utmost on the ground to support crews and to get them back where possible. Now they need the support of all parties to the ongoing deal to recognise the scale of this issue and commit to a practical evacuation solution.
Agreement across the board on what this might look like will of course need delicate handling and precise negotiations. When the initiative first began in July, ships that were stuck in participating ports but were fit to carry grain were allowed to join and make their way back. Now any remaining seagoing vessels should also be allowed to leave. Parties may see potential for the corridor to be expanded, or for evacuations from mutually agreed locations as an alternative option.
The Black Sea grain initiative has been a significant joint success between Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN. Part of this success is that it has not just alleviated global concerns about food security, but that it has given participating ships and those on board assurances about their safety when carrying out necessary jobs in the region. Almost 120 days in, there is now the opportunity to go one step further and facilitate the rescue of hundreds from their confinement in the conflict zone.