WISTA 2008, New Orelans, LA

Oct 15, 2008

Seafarer Issues: Are We Making Progress?

Deborah G. Blanchard
The Seamen's Church Institute

Annual Conference
October 15-17, 2008
in New Orleans, Louisiana

The presentation will focus on the results of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights recent North American ports survey, as well as changes and ongoing issues relating to shore leave since starting the surveys in 2001, and mention the potential impact on recruitment and retention. Issues include access to terminals, high terminal escort fees, lack of visas. I will also discuss current efforts to improve shore leave issues, such as provisions in current House and Senate bills to prohibit fees, as well as ratification of ILO-185 Seafarers’ Identity Document.

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My name is Deborah Blanchard, and I work as the staff attorney at the Seamen’s Church Institute in New York. I’m honored to have the opportunity to speak on this panel as well as attend the WISTA conference amongst so many accomplished women shipping professionals.

I tell friends that normally one of the benefits of attending shipping conferences is that there’s never a line for the women’s room, I am delighted that is not the case here.

My particular topic today is crew treatment/access to ports, and to answer the question posed by the panels title-are we making progress?

The answer is yes and no, though fortunately more on the yes side as a practical matter. Unfortunately the perception of seafarers about shore leave and terminal access has not improved, they still feel undervalued and treated more like criminals, which of course has recruitment and retention implications.

We’re all aware of the significant changes over the last few years to enhance maritime security, and with that seafarers have taken on additional work responsibilities, as well as increased participation in promoting maritime domain awareness. And while many organizations, including public, private and governmental bodies, have worked and continue to work to promote the dignity of the mariner, there is much ground to be covered in terms of conveying that to seafarers.
At SCI we certainly believe that, in the words of the Supreme Court shore leave is an “elemental necessity”, for the well-being of merchant mariners, and limitations on this right that don’t accurately address a real security threat serve as a impediment both to security and recruitment and retention efforts at a time when the industry faces a potentially severe shortage of qualified mariners.

To break down the information we’ve gather over the years, essentially after 9/11 we understandably saw a dramatic increase in the security measures required in ports, manifested in ways such as the MTSA, stricter border controls and the elimination of the crew list visa, all of which impacted the crews arriving in US ports and the chaplains who serve them. Which led to our beginning to conduct surveys of ports around the country to see what issues seafarers and chaplain were encountering in their work.

The first surveys painted a grim picture-it seemed that no one was getting off vessels, as the realization had not fully sunk in for seafarers that they really needed to get a C-1/D crewmember visa in order to go ashore.  At the time, even if a seafarer thought to get an individual visa, he likely encountered long waits for appointments at the consulate which essentially prohibited him from obtaining one, only to arrive in the US to find terminal restrictions prohibiting seafarers ashore regardless of whether they possessed a visa.

Fortunately the situation has improved overall. What has remained true is that the main reason seafarers are denied shore leave is due to lack of visa. You need a visa to apply for entry into the US, and without it, you are not getting off the vessel. The United States currently requires foreign crews on visiting merchant vessels and aircraft to have a D-1 visa to apply for shore leave 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(D)(i). Crewmembers who sign-off from their ships in the United States and depart on conveyances other than the ships on which they arrived on are required to have D-2 visas, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(D)(i). Crewmembers who wish to enter the United States to join their ship in the United States are considered transits and must have a C-1 visa, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(C).  

Many more seafarers now obtain visas if a possibility exists they might visit the U.S. Some employers even require a U.S. visa as a condition of employment. And while vast improvements have occurred, visas can still remain costly and difficult to obtain, particularly if long distances are involved to travel to the US consulate. But U.S. remains one of the few countries that require seafarers to have a visa for entry.

NOTE: our number are not exact, as the number of vessels visited varies and it not always reported, but the surveys’ are intended to give an overview of the issue

(Pie chart slide with bar graph slide)

No apparently correlation appears to exist between type of vessel or nationality in terms of who is denied visas, in spite of occasional rumors to the contrary.

(Terminals that deny access slide)

The terminal access also remains a problem, though smaller that when facility security plans first went into effect, both in the form of straight prohibition of access, to constructive shore leave denial in the form of exorbitant private terminal access fees, both for seafarers and chaplains. While we and others have worked with the Coast Guard to encourage terminal operators to follow the letter of the Coast Guard regulations  implementing the MTSA) which requires that facility security plans § 105.200 (b)(7) ensure coordination of shore leave for vessel crew and access to the facility for vessel visitors, the Coast Guard cannot mandate access on private property.

Some terminals have responded to the regulations by ‘allowing’ access but charging such exorbitant fees that access and shore leave is constructively denied. This problem was more serious a few years ago, but thanks to coordinated efforts by local chaplaincies and the support of the Coast Guard, it is much less prevalent. Unfortunately there’s not much traction where the in the terminals where the high fees continue. Connecticut ports and a couple of terminals in Port Newark continue to report problems, with fees as high as $400 dollars  PER PERSON to provide an escort for either chaplains or seafarers to transit the terminal.  Other terminals run by the same company but in different locations do not charge the same fees, nor to bigger terminals in the same area with arguable larger security risks.


There are a couple of positive signs on the horizon for the issues of lack of visas and terminal access for seafarers and chaplains.

First, in terms of the terminal fees issue, current versions of the House and Senate coast Guard appropriations bills for 2008 contain language that requires facility security plans to have a system for seafarers and chaplains to board and depart the vessel through the vessel at no cost to the individual. Apparently significant concerns about other provisions in both bills have led to long delays in their consideration, but we are heartened by the appearance of the provisions.

As for shore leave denials due to lack of visas, we at SCI have long advocated to resolve the lack of visa issue through ratification of the Seafarers’ Identity Document, ILO-185. The ILO-185 seafarer identity document would offer a biometric ID card that would allow authorities to verify the identity of a seafarer and use it as a basis for waiving the visa requirement. Seafarers would still come under the scrutiny of the 96-hr arrival notice check, and as with visas would not be guaranteed shore leave, and still have to undergo the Customs and Border Patrol interview upon arrival.

Crewmembers not in possession of a SID would have to obtain a visa to apply for shore leave in the United States.  To have all seafarers entering U.S. waters posses a SID adds a significant benefit, greater than only portion possessing a U.S. visa.


ILO-185 SIDs would not serve as travel documents, but they would provide a basis for waiving a D-1/2 visa. Legislative authority already exists in 8 U.S.C. §1182(d) and §1282(a) for Customs and Border Protection officers to waive visas in circumstances provided for in regulations.  The Department of Homeland Security could promulgate regulations authorizing CBP officers to waive visas for crewmembers possessing conforming ILO-185 SIDs.  In the alternative, Congress could enact specific legislation authorizing waiving visas for crewmembers who have valid SIDs.

The standards for SIDs enumerated in ILO-185 satisfy the technical requirements of the U.S. Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Entry Act of 2002 (e.g. machine-readable, tamper-proof, digital photograph, biometric indicator).
The combination of the ILO-185 card and existing security measures, including port of entry immigration interviews, would provide a sufficiently high level of security.  

Downsides of No Widespread Ratification

If the US and other major maritime nations do not ratify 185, then there’s no incentive for other countries to do so, and they may start requiring visas for seafarers as well, which means increased expenses and administrative burdens for seafarers. In addition, the United States will have to devise a new credentialing system for foreign seafarers to meet the requirements of the Maritime Transportation Security Act. Also, lack of widespread ratification would mean that no secure uniform ID card worldwide.

The House bill I mentioned earlier also contains language that would fund a study of methods to conduct a background security check on someone who had an  ILO 185 (flesh out more)  ID card that are equivalent to the investigation that occurs when someone applies for a visa to enter the US. (Sec. 717) , so hopefully the issue will gain some ground in the near future.

To sum up, we are definitely making progress in the arena of shore leave and access issues, but more needs to be made to ensure that seafarers feel like the crucial, respected partners in the shipping community their work merits.

Thank you.