CHARITY: Meet the guardians of the sea on a welfare mission

Living on a ship with limited communication and a lack of food and water, seafarers can face dismal situations at sea. But one international organisation is looking out for the welfare of crews off UAE shores

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Frozen chickens fly overhead as hopeful hands reach out from the railings to catch the first piece of food they’ve had access to for days.

“I just hoped they wouldn’t drop them!”

Aboard a small supply vessel, Dr Paul Burt throws essential food to seafarers who had been all but abandoned aboard their vessel while anchored off the coast of the UAE.

As regional director of The Mission to Seafarers for the Gulf and India, this is just one of many circumstances Paul finds himself in while monitoring the welfare of seafarers.

Operating in the UAE since 1962, the mission serves 17 ports from Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah. Through the implementation of seafarer’s centres and welfare officers, the team offers services to, and oversees the wellbeing of, up to 60,000 seafarers every year. A large part of the project is the operation of the Flying Angel, a floating seafarer’s centre that has been operating out of Fujairah port since 2007.

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Dr Paul Burt

The mission’s non-profit project called the Angel Appeal funds the Flying Angel and support for seafarers in the form of humanitarian aid through community engagement and financial donations.

Paul explains, “When a seafarer comes into port, he can usually get off the ship and visit the seafarer’s centre, which will be a building with a bar, lounge and shop so he can relax and communicate with home.

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“With more than 100 big vessels in the bunker anchorage off Fujairah, these men were cut off from all kinds of support and communication.

“We realised there was a need for a floating, mobile seafarer’s centre. These men can’t come ashore so let’s take the shore to them. [The Flying Angel] operates seven days a week – depending on weather and other circumstances – going to an average of four or five ships a day.”

While smaller ships may come into port, larger ones are too big for the shallow water, and other ships simply find it more economical to park off shore.

Due to its geographical location and deep waters, Fujairah anchorage is the second largest in the world, after Singapore. There may be over 100 ships at any time, 80 percent of which are oil tankers, with up to 20 men on board who are not permitted to leave the ship and come ashore.

Paul explains, “As soon as they come ashore they’re then entering that country and have to go through the immigration and visa process. It can happen in the case of an emergency, like if they need medical attention, but in all other respects there’s no system to allow that to happen, and it would be extremely time consuming and expensive.

“The crews on these tankers are there for the length of their contract, which may be six to nine months, and that’s the value of coming on to the Flying Angel: they can see a different face, speak with the welfare officer if there are issues they want to discuss, do a bit of shopping, and have a psychological boost of visiting a smaller ship and relieving their monotony.”

The Flying Angel is equipped with a duty free shop that’s packed with essential items such as toothpaste, razors, deodorant as well as chocolate, snacks, T-shirts, speakers and SIM cards. There’s also a lounge area and a library with newspapers and magazines devoted to the world of seafaring, as well as a laptop with Wi-Fi for contacting home.

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But the Flying Angel is only one part of the work that Paul and his team do on a daily basis.

“The Flying Angel serves an important sector of the marine business in general – big ships, big international companies – and they have particular needs, especially the tanker crews who cannot come ashore.

“The other side of the coin is the offshore business, that’s the little vessels that go to ports in the Gulf servicing the oil rigs offshore, or tugs that operate from RAK to Qatar towing barges full of rock to build facilities for the World Cup. They’re usually smaller ships, owned by smaller companies.

“That’s what I call the ‘dirty’ end of the business – it’s where we see practices like deliberately employing unqualified crews who have fraudulent certificates obtained from crooked agencies because they’re cheaper to the owner of the ship when it comes to paying salaries.

“We come across a lot of unscrupulous and fundamentally criminal small businesses operating in the Gulf, and the owners are usually based somewhere in the region. It’s sometimes because of inexperience, greed or callousness that they allow their business to fail, and the first casualties are these guys who have to stay on the ship. That factor determines the extent of the problem. It’s not like if you’ve got a problem you can hand in your resignation and drive away. Seafarers can’t do that.”

The current economic climate has had a huge impact on the shipping business, and the ‘little people’ at the heart of it – the seafarers – are the first to be affected.

“The shipping business is very cyclical, it’s either doing well or it’s doing badly, and at the moment it’s at the bottom of the trough,” Paul explains.

“There was a slow down in China, which was the engine driving the whole world economy for so long, and the shipping industry was the first to be affected. The seafarers are the human side of that and they’re at the bottom – and the first thing that goes is the salary.”

In some cases, Paul has come across crews that had no pay in over two and half years, and struggled to source food or water. Unable to leave the boat and with no money to buy basic necessities like food, the crew rely on the Angel Appeal to save them from their dire circumstances.

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“We have a lot of serious welfare cases where men have not been paid for many months, some have no food or water, and the ships have effectively been abandoned and [those cases] take up a lot of our time,” Paul continues.

“We work with the agent or owner to try to get to the bottom of why there’s a problem and do our best with our own connections and our persuasive abilities to bring about a resolution of their circumstances satisfactorily. I think of this work as the three Rs. We receive, research and resolve. We receive an SOS from a ship, we research – Who owns the ship? Why is it in desperate circumstances? Why haven’t the men been paid? – and then resolve by contacting all the stakeholders to find a solution. That can happen in just a few phone calls, or it can take years.

“If I get a call from a crew that says they haven’t been paid for a month or two, they are moving to the back of the queue. At any one time we probably have between 10 and 20 cases like that – multiply by 5, 10, 15 to get the number of men affected, and those are just the ones we know about.

“Often my first words to them are of realism, because there’s a temptation to think that when we arrive as Mission to Seafarers welfare officers, all their troubles are over, but they’re not. It can take months to get these things resolved so I almost always say that this will take many more months and their faces fall. We say let’s now work on it, get all the information we can, stay in touch regularly and we’ll keep you up to date with our progress. We get heart-warming messages from seafarers that say they’ve got their money, their ticket and they’re on their way home, and that makes it worthwhile.”

Now, as the Flying Angel approaches its 10-year anniversary and the Angel Appeal continues its endeavours, Paul and his team are as grateful as always for the support in the community.

“The Flying Angel continues to do that important job of connecting these men to the outside world. We hope that it’ll continue doing that for as long as we can manage it. We are very grateful for the support we get from individuals, business, societies and organisations. We couldn’t do what we do without that support.”

You can support by contacting The Angel Appeal to discuss opportunities to form CSR partnerships, and as a registered NPO, find out how to make donations according to UAE rules and regulations for charities.

You can also attend the Angel Appeal High Tea on 12th November, or check out future events at: angelappeal.org/events/upcoming-events

To learn more about the appeal or support the project, contact: annashworth@angelappeal.org, angelappeal.org

WORDS Rachael Perrett
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