Shipowners, cruise lines and transport workers' associations are calling on European countries to admit seafarers into the EU Schengen territory to join ships or be repatriated.

Crew members have had their contracts extended — some by many months — and urgently need to be relieved but it is ‘exceedingly difficult’ for crew changes to take place in the EU, the European Community Shipowners’ Association (ECSA), European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), Cruise Lines International Association and World Shipping Council said a joint letter to ministers of home affairs and transport.

Need for third country seafarers to obtain visas

The European Commission’s guidelines identify seafarers as essential transport workers whose movement across borders should be facilitated, irrespective of their nationality. Currently the single most important barrier is the inability of third country seafarers to obtain required Schengen visas, ECSA, ETF, CLIA and World Shipping Council said.

Over the next two months between 100,000 and 120,000 third country seafarers will need Schengen visas so they can travel to relieve crew on vessels in EU ports. Around 50% will be Filipino. Around 25% will be applying for visas for the first time, while the remainder will be looking to have visas renewed or already have their details registered in EU Schengen databases.

Overseas EU consulates in labor-supplying countries are either closed or, if operational, may not be able to issue sufficient visas within the required time frame. Member states do not currently have resources available to issue sufficient visas on arrival.

Limited capacity for visa processing

For example, while the re-establishment of commercial flights between Manila and Amsterdam is welcomed, the limited number of visas on arrival that Amsterdam airport is able to process — 65 per day versus the estimated need of 300 per day, according to ECSA and ETF — highlights the problem.

Given the circumstances, no single solution will suffice, ECSA, ETF, CLIA and World Shipping Council said in their letter to ministers for home affairs and transport. They suggested implementing a combination of measures that can be deployed irrespective of whether overseas visa-issuing services are operational.

Issuing more visas on arrival

The groups recommended enabling more visas to be issued on arrival to help compensate for the backlog of applications in the EU missions overseas.

Burden sharing

They also suggested burden sharing, with all EU Schengen member states making temporary arrangements to facilitate visa applications for seafarers to lessen the burden of applications being submitted to only a few member states due to flight connections or ports being available for crew change.

Temporary arrangements should be made for visa applications to be submitted to any EU Schengen member state’s mission in a labor-supplying state, the letter said — not only to the member state in which the crew change and/or entry into Schengen occurs. Member states should issue visas also when entry is for transit to proceed to other states to effect the crew change, since crew changes entail arrangements such as flight connections to an airport in one country with road transport to a port in another, and vice versa.

Temporary EU-level waiver

As well, ECSA, ETF, CLIA and World Shipping Council suggested a temporary EU-level waiver. This would waive visas for crew going ashore — when it is clearly documented they are seafarers traveling for professional reasons. Member states, they said, should be encouraged to temporarily use the exemption found in Article 4 paragraph 1c of the EU Visa Code to cover transiting seafarers with, for example, a restriction of a maximum of five days’ stay.

Acceptance of recently used or expired visas

Further, the letter urged countries to consider accepting recently used or expired visas, as countries outside the Schengen area have done. It was acknowledged this may require a legislative measure.

Help from non-Schengen member states

And the groups called for facilitating seafarers’ visas by all EU member states, not only Schengen members. This means requesting non-Schengen member states like Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania to provide the various facilitations requested, including use of waivers.

ECSA, ETF, CLIA and World Shipping Council also strongly urged the European Union’s External Action Service to engage with third countries in promulgating the EU and international efforts for the designation of seafarers as ‘essential workers’ so as to facilitate their movement including for access to medical treatment and shore leave, repatriations and crew changes for EU citizens and those on board EU-flagged or owned vessels.

‘These emergency solutions would bring critical relief for many seafarers who have been at sea for many months, employment for those replacing them and support for the maintenance of shipping services that will be vital to the recovery of our economies in the short, medium and long term,’ ECSA, ETF, CLIA Europe and World Shipping Council said.