“Seafarers are the ones that bring to us 90 percent of the goods we use daily, but little attention is paid to them”
Francis Abimbola Duroja is the Champlain of ‘Mission to Seafarers’ in Lagos State. He is also the Vicar of St Andrews Anglican Church in Apapa. The mission to seafarers is an organization that takes care of wellbeing of seafarers aboard vessels calling at Nigerian ports. In this Interview with Shipping Position Daily correspondent Dapo Olawuni in Lagos last week, he spoke on the various challenges of Nigerian seafarers. According to him; many of them are locked up in prison. He also alleged that many government agencies in the maritime sector are not committed to the welfare of seafarers.
“When we go to prisons, we meet foreign seafarers few in number, but the Nigerian seafarers there are more”
What is mission to seafarers all about?
The mission to seafarers is an international, non-governmental, and non-profit making organisation. Presently, it has its existence in over 150 countries of the world, with the international headquarters in the United Kingdom. It has relationship with over 200 ports across the globe. So the mission to seafarers is an organisation established by an Anglican priest as a social responsibility of the church to the society. We attend and minister to people from various denominations; it cuts across religious barrier or affiliations. Our major responsibilities are; first, we go onboard vessels at the port, enter the ship, meet with the crew members, interact with them, ask after their well-being and their families, these are people that by the reason of their job, they are isolated from their family, they can be on the sea for months, separated from their family. So, this mission always like going to them and relate with them in order to know about their challenges, try to create a relationship with them; we counsel them, render advise and attend to their needs within our limited resources. Even in terms of medical challenges, we take some of them to hospital sometimes. Also, we offer them religious materials that can be of help to them.
The second thing we also do as a body is that we have a seafarer centre which is like a club, we try to make this place a home away from home for seafarers, it’s just that presently, the place has not been functioning the way it is supposed to, but we are working on it. It is a place where the seafarers come around as their first point of call because they don’t have any relation in any of the country. So, when they come, we supply them internet services, when they come around they can reach their families at home, we have recreational centre there like swimming pool among others. Sometimes when we go on ship visits, and the seafarers need to get something outside, we usually take them out of the ports; we bring them to the centre, we take them to shop and we also return them back to the ship, this is just to make sure that we identify with them. As far as we are today, seafarers are the ones that bring to us 90 percent of the goods we use daily, but little attention is paid to them, so this mission try as much as possible to reach out to them and make them feel important. Part of our duty is also to go to prisons because some of these people are arrested and detained for offences they did not commit.
In your experience, what do you think is the major problem confronting Nigerian seafarers?
The seafarers face the challenge of piracy, insecurity on our waterways. Also, each time they come to the port, they always want to go out, inside the ship they feel they are in a cage, so whenever they get to the port, they want to be free and mix with people, and they cannot just go out like that, so it is people like us as well as other organisations that does it. Another problem is kidnapping, so the ship captain cannot just release the seafarers to just anybody. They also have the problem of transportation, for example, in this place we used to have a standby bus which we use to bring them out and return them.
Nigerian seafarers also have the problem of poor remuneration and welfare packages, how does your organisation help out?
As mission to the seafarers, part of our job is also to meet with the shipowners and employers of labour, the seafarers comprise of both local and international seafarers, the international seafarers don’t have much of these welfare problem because they are insured, but the local ones have the problem. So we try as much as possible to talk to their employers as a way of mediation, because often times we go on the ship and seafarers lament that they have not been paid for several months. Another aspect in the welfare of the local seafarers is that sometimes they are arrested for the offence they do not commit or the offences that were committed by their employers, but because they are the ones available, they are arrested and put in jail. So, when we go to prison and they explain their plight to us, we usually try to get back to their employers and speak with them.
How many Nigerian seafarers do we have wallowing in prison presently? And what have you done to secure their release?
As the mission to the seafarers, we work in collaboration with the National Seafarers Welfare Board. I am also a member of the board, even when we want to go to prison; I go with them because they are the main body that does take it upon themselves to visit prisons and hospitals, so we work in collaboration with them. I might not have the actual number of seafarers in prison but I know that we have hundreds of them presently, so in connection with the Seafarers Welfare Board, we go there and attend to their needs, we identify with them. But as far as this mission is concerned, our two major works is; ship visits, and bringing the seafarers to the centre here.
How true is it that the seafarers centre is now being militarised and used for combat training?
I would describe this as a rumor, this centre has not been militarised, we have some merchant navy officers that come around here, they hold meetings, do some training in the swimming pool, we have fellowship with them, they come for training every Monday and it is part of our responsibility to attend to their spiritual needs. Since I have been here in August 2017, I have not seen anyone of them carrying a gun, so how can they say the place has been militarised? As a matter of fact, these merchant navies are part of the local seafarers, so they have always been around, although there is a limit to which they can go and I am in control of the situation by the grace of God.
What about the allegation of combat training, is this part of why the place was set up?
Training that we are talking about, they are not using here as training per say, swimming is part of their training and we have a big swimming pool here, so they come here from time to time, part of their requirement is that you must know how to swim. When they were trying to out-step their boundary, I have checked them.
Many seafarers are currently roaming the streets unemployed, why some are reported to be unemployable, what is the way out?
This has to do with our problem as a nation; it is like some of our children from the higher institutions who are graduating every year without jobs, so the same thing applies to the seafarers. This is an area where our government needs to step up and address the unemployment issue. The unemployment issue among the seafarers is contributing to the militancy, kidnapping and armed robbery, each time we have the opportunity to speak up like this, we tell the government to wake up to their responsibility.
What is your relationship with various Merchant Navy groups?
We have a good relationship with all the groups, since I came around, I have been trying to reach out to them, I met some of them in their offices, all the groups have their representatives in the National Seafarers Welfare Board. About two weeks ago, we inaugurated the Tin Can Island welfare committee, of all these committees, as chaplain of this mission, I am a member, so we usually meet on these committees, so I relate with them all and their representatives.
What has been the contribution of foreign and government agencies towards development our seafarers?
Like I said, this mission is an international organisation and we have links and a good relationship with the international body. In January, we had two representatives from the international body, we had the director of advocacy who came from UK and the African Regional Director, the two of them were here for one week and we held series of meetings and discussed extensively on how the mission can be enhanced internationally. But mainly, what I discovered was that, the international body is more interested in the welfare of the international seafarers that come into the country more than the welfare of Nigerian seafarers, they believe that Nigeria should be able to take care of its seafarers. When they came in January, we talked about the centre here and they have promised to contribute to the development of this centre because we need to resuscitate it and make it up to international standard. However, the international body has said that they need to see us start doing something first before they would come and assist, they want to see us in Nigeria working and doing the needful, they have heard all the stories about our country and it is giving them setback.
How much support do you get from maritime sector agencies like NIMASA and NPA?
The National Seafarers’ Welfare Board which I told you that I belong to is even being supported mainly by international bodies; they get little or no support from the local agencies. When we go to prisons, we meet the foreign seafarers who are few in number, but the Nigerian seafarers there are more, and because the board receives more support from foreigners than Nigeria, you can imagine what would happen, so they would want to assist more foreign seafarers before coming to the Nigerian seafarers. If there is a situation whereby our government, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) is heavily supporting people like us and the National Seafarers Welfare Board, it would not be a problem taking it upon ourselves to attend to the need of the Nigerian seafarers. As a country, we have what it takes; it is just a misplacement of priority.