NEW DELHI, Jan 19, 2021, Al Jazeera. A group of Indian sailors stranded off the Chinese coast for seven months, caught up in a trade dispute between China and Australia, have been allowed to leave for Japan, union officials said, Al Jazeera reported.
The sailors had been stuck outside the Chinese port of Jingtang since mid-June due to a Chinese trade embargo on Australian coal.
The embargo kept them from reaching China but maritime law prevented them from taking off with a cargo that had been purchased by Chinese merchants.
“Our seafarers who were doing their job were caught in a political and trade war between Australia and China,” Abdulgani Serang, the general secretary of the National Union of Seafarers of India, told the DPA news agency.
The 23-member crew of the Indian vessel Jag Anand arrived in Tokyo late on Monday, Serang said. Ship-tracking website MarineTraffic also showed the ship docking in Tokyo.
From there, the sailors will fly to India after clearing pandemic procedures.
The vessel, along with its cargo of Australian coal, was granted passage to Japan last week after the intervention of the Indian government and ship owner Great Eastern Shipping.
Around 55 more ships, along with scores of other sailors, many of them Indians, are still stuck in Chinese waters, Serang said.
Among them is the Anastasia, another Indian-manned vessel carrying Australian coal, which has been at China’s Caofeidian anchorage since September 20.
Relations between Australia and China have become increasingly strained, ever since Canberra banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from setting up a 5G network in Australia.
In response, Beijing placed a string of trade embargoes on Australia, in recent months including wine, beef and coal.
Serang voiced optimism that the crew aboard the Anastasia will also be relieved soon, thanks to ongoing efforts, including those by its owner, Mediterranean Shipping Company.
Serang said some sailors had been on board their ships between 18-20 months, after joining duties before the pandemic threw the shipping industry into a crisis.
“Sailors including from other nationalities, are in a way held captive, on a floating prison for months on end. This is taking a heavy toll on the mental and physical well-being of the crew,” Serang added.
Anastasia navigation officer Gaurav Singh said the sailors were in a desperate situation. “We are all losing our minds here,” he told the Times of India newspaper recently, adding one crew member had even tried to commit suicide.
The United Nations had in October highlighted an “unparalleled crisis” affecting hundreds of thousands of crew members and maritime workers reeling due to the impact of COVID-19.
It called on the business sector and others involved in the shipping industry to do more to address the plight of seafarers worldwide.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimates that only 150,000 crew have been changed since March 2020.
“..That leaves 900,000 seafarers, 450,000 each way, still to change over. So some 450,000 seafarers are estimated to have gone beyond their contracts on ship,” an IMO spokesperson said.