Restrictions hurting seafarers

Terrorist concerns keep many crews aboard ships
September 30, 2003

Just a few watery feet from shore, Hakan Agirtmis and his crewmates begin another monotonous day under a sweltering sun.

They unloaded their ship's cargo almost three months ago, which cleared room for the daily soccer games the crew holds in the empty space. Without any work to do, they closely follow Spanish-language soap operas. They eat Turkish food -- a taste of home -- and flip through stacks of outdated National Geographic magazines. When they can, they call their families from cellular phones.

Because visa regulations have been more stringently enforced since Sept. 11, 2001, Agirtmis and his 20 crewmates cannot leave the ship. Their stay in Philadelphia -- within view of the city that will show them little brotherly love -- has stretched from late spring into late-summer because the ship was placed under arrest in a dispute with a German bank and the owner. A sentry is on the dock to ensure that the ship and its crew stay put.

The Rev. Jim Von Dreele, executive director of the Seamen's Church Institute in Philadelphia, and his staff of 13 visit the crew regularly. Sometimes they bring new batches of National Geographic magazines and cell phones. Other times they just provide a break from the monotony of living in an insular environment and seeing the same faces every day.

"It's very isolating, very claustrophobic," Von Dreele said. "I liken it to being on a perpetual family reunion." Before Sept. 11, excursions scheduled for the time between a ship's arrival and departure -- usually a few hours -- provided opportunities for some seafarers to reconnect with their "real" families.

SCI staff also drove seafarers to inexpensive stores, where the men could buy new clothes and personal items that would cost more back home. Crews visited the SCI center, which moved to a new location in February and underwent a $3 million makeover. At the center, they could use the Internet, choose books and movies to bring on the ship, play games or enjoy a Cup O' Noodles.

Although the center still welcomes thousands of guests-- 20,000 seamen come through Philadelphia's harbor yearly -- the center has encountered a 20 percent decrease in visitors since Sept. 11, Von Dreele said. In addition to denials based on visa requirements, many seafarers are now denied shore leave, irrespective of the crew's immigration status, if their ships are docked at private oil or gas terminals.

Douglas Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers' Rights at SCI in New York, said many policy makers regard ports as "soft points of American security." Since Sept. 11, there has been a move to restrict traffic off ships, particularly in privately-owned ports, as a safeguard against terrorist activity, he said.

Although some illegal immigrants have come to America that way, there have been no proven incidents of terrorists entering the United States aboard cargo ships, Stevenson said. Because seafarers hail from locations around the world, their potential to provide information about potential terrorist attacks is greater than the possibility that they actually are terrorists, Stevenson said.

Von Dreele said Philadelphia's new seafarers' center was designed with crews' conditions in mind."This room is everything a ship is not," Von Dreele said. "It's light, it's spacious, it's comfortable." The Rev. Peter Larom, former director of SCI in New York and current adviser to the Alliance of Episcopal Maritime Ministries, said Philadelphia's center stands out among other centers.

But unless visa enforcement slackens to its pre-Sept. 11 leniency, Agirtmis and many others like him can only attend services on ships.

Under the stifling summer sun, Agirtmis stood on the deck of the ship that has become his home and the oil-slick steps that join the ship and solid ground -- steps he is not allowed to descend. Agirtmis said the ship arrest and monotonous lifestyle that accompany it did not anger the crew.

"They are not happy with this," he said. "But they are not angry."

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