Keep ships moving, ports open and trade flowing

UNCTAD and IMO call on governments to work together to facilitate crew changeover and remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to maritime transport during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

The world’s reliance on maritime transport makes it more important than ever to keep ships moving, ports open and cross-border trade flowing, and to support ship crew changeovers, the United Nations maritime and trade bodies said in a joint statement published on 9 June. 

UNCTAD and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) reiterated calls for governments to promote crew well-being by allowing crew changes and ensuring seafarers and other maritime personnel have access to documentation and travel options so they can return home safely.

Maritime transport depends on the 2 million seafarers who operate the world’s merchant ships, which carry more than 80% of global trade by volume, including most of the world’s food, energy, raw materials and manufactured goods.

Crew changeovers are essential for the continuity of shipping in a safe and sustainable manner. It’s estimated that starting in mid-June 2020 as many as 300,000 seafarers a month will require international flights to enable ships’ crew changeover. About half will travel home by aircraft for repatriation while the other half will join ships. And approximately 70,000 cruise ship staff are waiting for their repatriation.

This process is currently hampered by travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But to comply with international safety and employment regulations – and for humanitarian reasons – crew changes can’t be postponed indefinitely. Access to medical care for sick or injured crew and to medical prescriptions must also be provided.

Designate seafarers as “key workers”

In the statement, UNCTAD and IMO also reaffirmed the urgent need for “key worker” designation for seafarers, marine personnel, fishing vessel personnel, offshore energy sector personnel and service personnel at ports.

Governments and relevant national and local authorities must recognize that these workers provide essential services, regardless of their nationality, and should thus exempt them from travel restrictions when in their jurisdiction.

“Such designation will ensure that the trade in essential goods, including medical supplies and food, is not hampered by the pandemic and the associated containment measures,” the joint statement said.

It added: “We emphasize that, for trade to continue during these critical times, there is a need to keep ships moving, ports open and cross-border trade flowing, while at the same time ensuring that border agencies can safely undertake all necessary controls. International collaboration, coordination and solidarity among all is going to be key to overcoming the unprecedented global challenge posed by the pandemic and its longer-term repercussions.”

Remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles

Looking beyond the current situation, UNCTAD and IMO urged governments to pursue collaborative efforts to identify and remove any unnecessary regulatory obstacles to post-pandemic recovery and to facilitate maritime transport and trade in these difficult times.

They encouraged pragmatic approaches, such as granting exemptions and waivers where necessary and appropriate. Efforts should be made to facilitate electronic means for ship-shore, administrative and commercial interactions.

There should be effective sharing of pre-arrival information and other COVID-19-related reporting requirements for ships, as well as the provision of adequate equipment and resources to customs and border control stations in ports.

The joint statement highlighted that in the longer term some of the measures to confront the coronavirus crisis may offer other important benefits, such as encouraging further investment in digitalization and advancing efforts to improve ships’ energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping.

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