The International Shipping Federation (ISF), which represents maritime employers globally, is calling on port states to facilitate the right of seafarers to shore leave, in line with governments’ international treaty obligations, by proposing a new pragmatic approach to visa requirements.
ISF has made this proposal in a submission to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Facilitation Committee, which next meets in April to consider its current review of the IMO Convention on the Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL). The FAL Convention includes a blanket prohibition on port states requiring seafarers to obtain visas in order to enjoy shore leave.
The long established principle that, due to the special nature of their employment, seafarers should not be required to hold a visa for the purposes of shore leave is enshrined in various international Conventions, including the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions 185 and 108, as well the IMO FAL Convention.
However, in a post ‘9/11’ world of heightened concerns about security and immigration issues, the ability of seafarers to exercise this right is increasingly being challenged, with visas now required in United States and Australia. Problems are still being reported of seafarers not being able to leave their ships without visas within the Schengen area of the European Union, in spite of efforts by the European Commission to resolve these difficulties. Problems also exist in Brazil, Singapore, South Africa and other countries.
“Despite the clear principle established by various Conventions, many port states do now require a large number of seafarers to obtain visas in advance in order to enjoy shore leave. This causes serious difficulties for seafarers – especially those operating in tramp trades that may not have the opportunity to apply for a visa in advance.” said ISF Director of Employment Affairs, Natalie Shaw.
As part of the ongoing review of the FAL Convention, several governments have supported proposals to add “visa number, if appropriate” within the information that port states can be permitted to request from ships. Whilst governments have argued that this information will only be used to assist the transmission of information about visas required by those seafarers who might wish to travel beyond the ‘geographical limits’ of shore leave, ISF believes that adoption of such an amendment could serve to legitimise the requirement of visas for shore leave by Parties to FAL, further undermining the fundamental principle that visas should not be required.
Notwithstanding the principle, however, ISF’s priority is to ensure that the welfare of seafarers is met by ensuring that shore leave is facilitated. ISF is therefore proposing to IMO that governments should agree that in the event that port states insist upon requiring visas for shore leave, they should make provisions for the seafarers to be able to apply for visas upon arrival in port, or very shortly before. ISF will therefore propose that a new ‘Recommended Practice’ to this effect be included in the FAL Convention. If accepted, ISF will drop its current opposition to the proposal that visa numbers might be requested from ships.
“While this involves a degree of compromise on our part, we do not want to cut off our nose to spite our face. In the event that such an amendment could be accepted by governments, this might make a significant contribution towards facilitating access to shore leave, which remains a serious problem for many seafarers and shipping companies and which is a matter on which we have seen little progress in recent years. We want to break the impasse.” said Mrs Shaw.
The amendment proposed by ISF would also be consistent with the principles established in ILO Convention 185, which ISF, in its capacity as co-ordinator of the Employers’ Group, helped to negotiate at an ILO Tripartite Conference in 2003.