The HRAS Interview with Mr. Chirag Bahri – Seafarer’s Welfare Personality of the Year 2015

Chirag with IMO Secretary GeneralHRAS: First of all, many congratulations on your 2015 International Seafarers Welfare Award “The Dr. Dierk Lindemann Welfare Personality of the Year”. What does this mean to you and your work at the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP)?

Many thanks for your warm wishes. It was a huge honour to receive this prestigious award by the IMO Secretary General a few days back. It recognizes the sufferings of thousands of seafarers and their families affected by maritime piracy and that MPHRP, with the assistance of our partners, has been able to provide humanitarian assistance to many of them. This award is dedicated to ALL the seafarers and their families who have ever been through the piracy menace. I am really obliged that the work done, especially in the South Asia region, has been well appreciated by the international maritime community, and this gives me lot of motivation to try and assist the many other seafarers and their families who need such assistance.

HRAS: As Regional Director South Asia for the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme what are your objectives and intended plans for the organization in the next 12 months?
MPHRP South Asia aims to get in contact with all the seafarers affected by piracy. But their contact details are not always readily available to us, and this sometimes becomes an obstacle for us to reach out to them. We have been meeting with seafarers at their pre / post sea maritime colleges to spread awareness about how can they prepare themselves well for piracy at sea. We are also working with Ocean Beyond Piracy (OBP), a US based NGO, on collecting data for a survey of seafarers on the effects that piracy has on them. This survey is half way at present, and we expect it to be complete in the next two months.

At present, few seafarers who were released in 2014 have approached us to assist them with jobs on board and so we are working along with The Directorate General of Shipping (DGS) India, Directorate General of Shipping Bangladesh and the Indian maritime industry for their full rehabilitation so that they can start earning and providing for themselves again.

Some of the seafarers have issues related to expired documentation due to their long ordeal in captivity. We are also pursuing same with the regional stakeholders on this matter. Training of seafarers is an important aspect, and we are also looking into how training guides can be updated.

At present, few seafarers who were released in 2014 have approached us to assist them with jobs on board and so we are working along with The Directorate General of Shipping India, Directorate General of Shipping Bangladesh and the Indian maritime industry for their full rehabilitation so that they can be able to again start earning and providing for themselves.

Some of the seafarers have issues related to expired documentation due to their long ordeal in captivity. We are also pursuing same with the regional stakeholders on this matter as well. Training of seafarers is an important aspect and this is also looked into on how further the training guides can be updated.

 

HRAS: Was the support of regional South-Asian governments and the maritime industry easy to obtain as an organisation, or did you initially meet challenges in convincing people of your objectives?

The support of Governments and the industry is invaluable. I still remember my first meeting with Mr Deepak Shetty, present DGS India, on issues relating to seafarers and families affected by piracy. I must admit that whatever we requested, he acknowledged and we have been totally in sync since then in trying to assist piracy affected families. The Indian Government has been instrumental and led from the front to reach out to families in crisis. Also when seafarers returned, we have worked closely together with them as well as the Indian maritime fraternity to assist the seafarers in whatever way possible. The DGS India has relaxed the rules for the seafarers so as they can appear for examinations and move forward in their life. The Bangladeshi Government has also responded quite positively and has supported their seafarers on return. We hope that the Sri Lankan Government will also extend their assistance in a similar manner.

Being a seafarer myself, who didn’t know what to expect when I took up the work of an NGO in South Asia, I was advised by many colleagues that one should take all criticism in a positive manner and should learn from it. I just followed the advice and I learnt the skills and expertise on daily basis.

 

HRAS: What do you think are the essential elements of a Piracy Awareness Training Course?

Piracy awareness training course includes preparing seafarers on how to harden their ships so that pirates will not be able to succeed in coming on board, what happens during a pirate attack and what the common reactions of fellow seamen on board are. The objective is to help seafarers cope during captivity. So we tell them how negotiations work and how they should behave among themselves during captivity. The vulnerabilities associated with violence, hostage situations and the release process is explained to them. Most important is their humanitarian needs. We explain that their survival and safety is paramount. We also give advice on what to share with their families prior to joining ship. Many seafarers have been injured as a result of fighting amongst themselves during captivity. This is very natural, as during stress and excessive trauma, one reacts differently. We always advice seafarers that the situation is abnormal and not you so the best way is to keep calm and stay united.

 

HRAS: What are the essential stages for assisting in the successful rehabilitation of a seafarer post-captivity?

When a seafarer returns home from captivity, especially when he and his family have undergone a long period of trauma, his main concerns are financial and the health of his family members. MPHRP South Asia tries to reunite the seafarer with his family members privately as this is a very emotional time and people appreciate privacy during such times. We try to organise and facilitate medical support to him as well as to his family members which also includes counselling from a professional and well reputed team of doctors. The next stage comes after about one month, when a seafarer goes back to his home, finds some difficulty in personal relations or lack of sleep, anxiety about future etc. We try to organise more counselling sessions based on advices from doctors. In the case where seafarers do not have sufficient monetary support, due to lack of support from the owner, MPHRP then reaches out to different partners and they have come forward to assist them on a per case basis. The Indian as well as Bangladesh Governments have also extended financial support to seafarers and their families during such time.

The seafarer’s main concern is how will he be able to again support his family and be able to start earning. As mentioned earlier, the Governments have come forward to help their seafarers with issuing of necessary documents like passport, CDC, other certificates required as per the rules, at a very short notice. The rules have been relaxed for seafarers which motivates them to appear for examinations as their sea time is counted during the piracy ordeal. We try and provide career counselling to the seafarers and then based on their rank and experience, approach the Indian industry to try to absorb them in their member companies. I am very thankful to the Indian industry especially. All the requests made so far to help these seafarers have been well addressed and most of the seafarers have returned back on ship and are performing well. Returning to sea is often the best sign of completed rehabilitation.

This is a collective effort. The model which has been followed in India is where industry, unions, professional organisations and the Government have worked very closely, along with MPHRP, to rehabilitate seafarers on their return. If such a model was followed by every nation for its seafarers, then I am sure that all seafarers will be happy to return back to sea and stand again on their own feet.

 

HRAS: Having personally experienced being a victim of piracy how likely is it for a seafarer who is a victim of a piracy attack, to fully recover from the trauma?

A seafarer who has ever been into captivity, requires love and care from his family, his friends, support from his company and guidance from his Government.

Most of the companies have provided very good care for their seafarers and their families and at present they are all sailing and have moved on in their life.

The main issue arises when an owner abandons the ship and its crew during or post hijack and then the seafarer and his family have to deal with the situation on their own.

I always cite the example of two different owners, their ships being hijacked at almost same time by Somali pirates, released at almost the same time. The responsible owner extended all possible assistance to the seafarers and also looked after the families well. These seafarers were ready to join back again after three months at home and they have recovered well. In contrast, those seafarers who were abandoned by the owners have to struggle a lot for everything like money, job and medical support. This all increases their trauma and stress on return.

Therefore, if the seafarers and their families are provided with good support post return, they have easily come out of the trauma.

 

HRAS: The highlighting of seafarers rights has been at the forefront of many organisations efforts to support seafarers. Do you think that the IMO can still do more to explicitly develop mechanisms and policies to further protect seafarer’s rights?

Seafarers sacrifice a lot during their service onboard merchant vessels. They have to face high seas, challenging weather and commercial pressure while staying away from their families for a long time. Nowadays, there have been many cases where criminalization of seafarers can be seen where they have been arrested for several days and months, such as the cases of Prestige and Herbie Spirit. There has been mistreatment of seafarers in all these processes, sometimes they have been denied legal counsel. Piracy has been on rise in South East Asian waters and in West Africa, and seafarers have been reported to be mistreated there as well. There are various other instances such as stranding of seafarers, non-payment of wages, but I am hopeful that with the coming of the MLC, there will be an improvement in this. But importantly, the world should realise the importance of seafarers and should support the sacrifices made by them at sea. Without the seafarers, the world will starve and so there must be proper publicity around the world on highlighting the life struggle of seafarers and their families. The laws are already in place but with a lack of jurisdiction issues and a lack of teeth in the laws, it becomes easier for a non-adherent to bypass them and this affects seafarers immensely. It is a collective responsibility, and if all stakeholders work together to address the problem, I am sure that seafaring will again become a profession which many will take up this adventurous job. I am proud to be a seafarer and will always work hard to do everything possible to make life easier for others.

Thank you HRAS for giving me this opportunity and wish you best luck for all the good work being done by your organisation!


Read the 2015 Seafarer Welfare award article HERE

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