Allies, not enemies

Allies, not enemies

To most Americans, merchant mariners are out of sight and out of mind, despite our dependence upon them in peace and in war. More than 90 percent of everything that we consume in our peacetime global economy ? from our morning coffee to the car that takes us home from work ? has traveled on a ship. The vast majority of trade with the U.S. is on foreign-flag ships with foreign crews.

Our military depends on both American and foreign merchant mariners. Desert Storm and Desert Shield demonstrated our reliance on foreign merchant ships and crews. Even sensitive military cargo was routinely shipped on foreign merchant ships until recently. The Maritime Administration halted the practice after the Coast Guard discovered missile warheads at Port Newark in a container on a Bahamian merchant ship commanded by a Yemeni master. It turned out that Raytheon Corp. was shipping the cargo under a U.S. Navy contract.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is providing our ally against terrorism, Yemen, with military equipment and training to help that country set up its own Coast Guard ? including training Yemeni officers at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Merchant mariners' gallant response to 9/11 is likewise unfamiliar to most Americans. The unsung heroes of that terrible Tuesday morning were brave mariners who operated more than 100 vessels through smoke and debris to evacuate almost 1 million people from lower Manhattan. Some ships, especially those with dangerous cargoes, were ordered to shift their moorings. Some had to leave the harbor. All merchant mariners, both foreign and American, were restricted to their ships. American and foreign merchant mariners confirmed their resolve against terrorism by helping security authorities to move vessels to safe moorings, by supporting security searches of their vessels and by uncomplainingly enduring strict security measures.

Shamefully, as long-term port-security measures were gradually established to replace the emergency responses to 9/11, security authorities seem to have forgotten merchant mariner contributions to our economy and to our security. Since 9/11, mariners have been subjected to more and more restrictions under the guise of maritime security. In contrast to commercial air crews, who are perceived by the authorities as potential victims of terrorism and as partners in preventing terrorism, merchant mariners are perceived to be potential terrorists, despite their proven dependability and the dearth of evidence linking merchant mariners with security risks.

Most foreign mariners spend extended periods at sea with long work hours and in cramped living conditions without contact with their families. Denying shore leave so severely affects the mental and physical state of seafarers that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized shore leave as an "elemental necessity." Since 9/11, immigration controls have been tightened and the Immigration and Naturalization Service has detained many crews on their vessels. Even some private terminals do not allow mariners to leave their ships ? irrespective of immigration restrictions.

Consequently, many seafarers are not allowed to step off their vessels in American ports even to make a phone call to their families from the dock or to obtain basic medical care. In some cases, shipowners have been ordered by the Coast Guard to place security guards, at their own expense, on vessels where the Immigration Service has restricted crews to their ships.

Few of these restrictions have been based on any known security risks; rather, almost all INS-imposed detentions of merchant-vessel crews have been related to technical visa issues or on the basis of mariner nationalities. Since 9/11 merchant mariners and their employers have found it increasingly difficult to obtain crew visas.

The Center for Seafarers' Rights is concerned that wholesale restrictions on merchant mariner shore leave is counter-productive to our port security. Merchant mariners want to be recognized for their dependability, and they want to cooperate with measures that are reasonably calculated to enhance security. However, as they see that the restrictions on their legitimate activities bear little connection to any security risk, the "national security" rationale mantra wears thin, and they will become increasingly disgruntled.

The international community of nations, seafarers' organizations and the maritime industry is cooperating with the U.S. in the International Maritime Organization, the International Labor Organization and the Congress to enhance maritime security. Some proposals under consideration relate establishing standards for reliable, positively verifiable and internationally acceptable seafarer-identification cards.

Such initiatives should be supported. We need reliable tools to help us recognize legitimate professional merchant mariners and distinguish them from others who would do us harm. This would enhance port security as well as increase shore-leave opportunities for eligible seafarers.

Douglas B. Stevenson, a retired Coast Guard commander, is director of the Center for Seafarers' Rights of the Seamen's Church Institute of New York and New Jersey. He may be

reached at (212) 349-9090, or via e-mail at