The relatives of eight Filipino seafarers who were arrested on July 28, 2023 in Algeria for alleged cocaine trafficking, said they were unjustly accused and detained. The relatives have appealed to the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) for assistance.
The eight seafarers were arrested after Algerian police discovered 35.8 kilos of cocaine aboard their ship, MV Harris, a Maltese-flagged container ship which at the time was docked at the port of Algiers.
Since their arrest, Algerian authority has not allowed the seafarers’ families, employer or Filipino officials to visit them. However, their employer, Eastern Mediterranean Maritime, managed to secure the service of a lawyer, who was able to meet the seafarers.
As of this writing, the Filipino seafarers, who have spent over three months in prison, have not been formally charged with any criminal offense.
Eastern Mediterranean Maritime has released a statement saying that the arrested Filipino seafarers have not been involved in any criminal act or any action that required them to be subjected to any disciplinary measures the whole time they have been employed with the company. None of the eight have criminal records.
“As maritime operators, we have an overwhelming interest in the termination of this practice—the use of commercial ships by international crime cartels to hide narcotics to the ignorance of the companies and crew,” the statement said.
In a public hearing, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) undersecretary Eduardo de Vega said the eight seafarers were not the first Filipino seafarers who were accused of trafficking illegal drugs.
“We are continuously monitoring the case of the eight and doing our best to reach them to provide the assistance that they need,” he said.
De Vega said that in November 2021 in Nigeria, 11 Filipino seafarers were also arrested for allegedly carrying over 13 kilos of cocaine. They were released only in August this year when the case against them was dismissed.
In March 2022, the Australian Federal Police seized 416 kilos of cocaine with a street value of around AUD166 million (PHP6.4 billion) from four Filipino seafarers who were arrested for alleged “importation of a commercial quantity of border-controlled drugs”. They could potentially face life imprisonment if found guilty.
A recent report by the International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (Intercargo) said addressing the threat of drug trafficking is now a bigger issue to seafarers than piracy and there should be better treatment of seafarers around the issue.
Intercargo said the risk of being arrested over drug activity on their ships, which they have no control of, means that people may be put off becoming seafarers.
“Police will often arrest an entire crew if drugs are found on a bulker ship as they are more likely to have had knowledge of the activity,” it said.
Captain Jay Pillai, special advisor to Intercargo, said in a media interview: “Piracy used to be the issue, now the drug menace has become the biggest challenge for seafarers.”
Presumption of innocence until proven guilty
Edgardo Flores, president and CEO of the Navigator International Maritime Training and Assessment Center, issued an appeal on behalf of the eight seafarers. He decried how accused and arrested seafarers are often denied access to normal rules of fair play and justice.
“Criminalization is one of the most serious problems facing seafarers today. There are so many innocent seafarers languishing in foreign jails for months but have not been formally charged or been heard in a court hearing,” he said.
Flores said the eight arrested seafarers was a “clear case of illegal detention”.
“What’s even more painful is how Philippine representatives have repeatedly attempted to see the detained Filipino crewmen but we were always turned away. We requested to provide them with food but we were denied. They are jailed together with 58 hardened criminals,” he said.
Flores said that for the last three months, the families of the detained seafarers have been doing their best to communicate with the DMW and DFA, “but to no avail”. The families even begged some politicians and government agencies to interfere on their behalf but unfortunately there have been no concrete news up to now.
Flores also questioned what he implied was the inaction of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). He said seafarers give regular contributions to the OWWA, but the agency has not come to their rescue.
“We can only rely on diplomatic interventions to secure the release of the innocent seafarers,” he said.
Flores also expressed dismay over how the recently approved law, the Magna Carta for Filipino Seafarers, does not mention means and measures to protect seafarers while at sea or when they encounter situations such as arrest based on false charges.
“The law focuses more on the issue of escrow funds rather than on actual seafarer rights protection. No assistance has been extended or given to the families of seafarers who experience incidents such as what has befallen the eight seafarers arrested in Algeria,” he said.
“Our seafarers contribute so much to the Philippine economy but in situations when they clearly need assistance, they receive no help.
“As a former seafarer, I am calling on our local government agencies and President Ferdinand Marcos to listen to the call of the families of detained seafarers, to listen to their grievances. They are victims in this situation.”
As of this writing, the DMW has yet to release updates on the case of the eight seafarers.
Photo credit: iStock/ Tinnakorn Jorruang