Vietnamese sailor stuck at sea, yearns for home

By Viet Anh   May 14, 2020 | 06:42 pm PT
Vietnamese sailor stuck at sea, yearns for home
A Seatrade cargo ship. Photo courtesy of the company.
A Vietnamese sailor employed by a Dutch shipping company has remained stuck off the Panama coast due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

"I have not been on land over the past two months since crew members were instructed to hold out at sea to avoid being infected with the coronavirus," Minh Tri wrote in an email sent Tuesday from a refrigerated cargo ship of Seatrade, an international transportation and shipping company registered in the Netherlands.

Tri, a deck officer, said his ship is anchored off the coast near Panama in Central America, waiting for further instructions from the headquarters.

The 26-year-old said the last time he visited land was at the end of February this year while docked in Bremen, northwest Germany. The ship did not dock at Spain, Australia or North America despite passing through these regions later on.

Since the coronavirus claimed over 298,000 lives globally, many cargo and cruise ships have been stranded at sea, including Tri's vessel.

Tri confirmed the crew was guaranteed enough food, enjoying facilities like libraries, swimming pools, gyms and electronics. However, most still lack medicine and other necessities. Without regular internet, Tri occasionally relies on a Wi-Fi transmitter to update and stay in contact with his family.

After graduating from a maritime university in the Netherlands, Tri worked on an ocean liner for more than three years. He commenced his post on the Seatrade ship in October 2019, embarking from Dunkirk Port in France.

As planned, Tri's contract expired in February 2020. Since he wanted to return to his hometown in Vung Tau coastal town in southern Vietnam, he planned to leave the vessel and stay on shore. But Tri's sailor visa is no longer valid, meaning he can't go onshore until renewing his travel documents.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) has recommended the governments of countries that have sailors working on ships to assist in repatriation. Sailors should be exempt from travel restrictions when they provide sufficient documentation, and be guaranteed health insurance from airlines on their journey home.

Meanwhile, European Commission (EC) urged European Union (EU) to create favorable conditions for its citizens and third-country nationals working on ships abroad when holding long-term visas, so they can be repatriated free of travel restrictions. EC statistics in early April 2020 showed nearly 600,000 multinational sailors working on EU ships.

Tri will be paid by the company to fly home. However, he does not know when and where there will be a commercial flight to Vietnam.

Since mid-April, countries around the world had stopped commercial flights to block the spread of Covid-19 while Vietnam has cooperated with a number of countries to organize special flights to return citizens.

Thousands of Vietnamese have been brought back from Canada, Japan, the UAE, the U.S, as well as Europe and other Southeast Asian neighbors.

"I strongly hope Vietnamese authorities will provide consular support, so that I and other sailors can return home soon," Tri said.

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