Over 600 Kiribati seafarers trapped overseas as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have now been repatriated, some after two years of being stranded, the International Chamber of Shipping announced.
The last six seafarers landed by plane in Tarawa on Monday. This marked the end of a two-year repatriation effort led by a coalition of employers, unions and NGO working with the government of Kiribati.
The Kiribati government in the central Pacific Ocean has operated a ‘zero-covid’ policy during the pandemic, implementing total lockdowns to inbound travel. Seafarer employers began housing the Kiribati seafarers in Denmark and Germany in early 2021 as their contracts finished. Seafarers were provided room and board by their employer while awaiting a change in Kiribati’s border protocols. All the seafarers received their full dose of the vaccine if they had not been vaccinated while on contract.
The seafarers began returning home in groups beginning in November 2020. By April 2021, 362 Kiribati seafarers returned via Fiji to Tarawa on flights organised by the Kiribati government. In November 2021, 141 Kiribati seafarers returned on a vessel hired by their employer.
At the start of 2022, 73 seafarers were repatriated in groups of around 10 on flights chartered by the Kiribati government, employers, and a religious organisation that supports seafarers.
The final six seafarers have now been repatriated from Fiji and will complete their quarantine in a government facility, as have all the repatriated seafarers both before departing and upon arrival, the ICS said.
Speaking on the seafarers return, Guy Platten, Secretary General, International Chamber of Shipping, said: “It’s an enormous relief to finally see all the Kiribati seafarers returned home to their families, but it should never have been this difficult to get these seafarers home. “Governments must look at the hardship these keyworkers have faced and ask if it was really necessary? “We must learn from this lesson and make sure policy is put in place that means it never happens again.”