No port in a storm: Australia tells virus-stricken cruise ships to go home

– Australia insisted on Friday it would not let the crew of multiple
virus-stricken cruise ships into the country, slapping aside suggestions it was
falling short on legal and moral obligations.

More than a dozen ships are
believed to be off Australia’s coast, carrying around 15 000 crew and some
experiencing outbreaks of coronavirus.

“We have issued notices to
all of these ships to leave Australian waters,” Australian Border Force
Commissioner Michael Outram told local media Friday.

“If ever there was a time, I
think, for ships to go back to where they’re registered, it’s probably during a
time of a global pandemic like this.”

Many vessels fly under flags of
convenience – registered to countries such as Panama, the Bahamas and Liberia,
which have scant capacity to screen or treat an influx of possible virus

The issue has become a global
problem, with ships looking for safe ports from Florida to Yokohama to Perth
and angry authorities accusing the multi-billion dollar cruise industry of
being reckless.

Australian authorities say they
will not risk unleashing a wave of Covid-19-positive people into the country,
burdening local health services that are already scrambling to increase

Cruise ships have already
accounted for almost 10 percent of Australia’s more than 5 000 infections and
several deaths.

And the issue has become
politically fraught, with local pundits dubbing the vessels “Death
Ships” and one nervous state leader calling for the navy to intercept a
cruise ship full of German tourists.

Attitudes hardened when the
government allowed 2 700 passengers to walk off the Ruby Princess in Sydney last
month, despite a cruise ship ban being in place.

Warning of humanitarian crisis

More than 300 of the passengers
later tested positive for Covid-19.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and
his controversial home affairs minister have sought to publicly distance
themselves from the mistake, leaving state authorities and the security
services to comment.

Police earlier this week
announced plans to drop doctors onto eight ships to check on crew members, in a
bid to fulfil a basic duty of care.

Some ships are already heeding
the warning to leave and others have said they will do so after they refuel.

But some are still warning of a
humanitarian crisis and refusing to depart.

The Cruise Lines International
Association – a trade group – said this week it was working to resolve the
problem but needed government help.

“If allowed, cruise lines
will arrange charter flights for their crew or transport aboard their own
vessels, but workable arrangements with government are required to make this
happen,” said the group’s Australasia director Joel Katz.

“Australia has successfully
processed many tens of thousands of people through its airports in line with Covid-19
precautions, and we believe it is entirely safe and feasible to allow movements
of crew in a similarly sensible and ordered process.”

Natalie Klein, a law professor at
the University of New South Wales said convention meant that distressed ships
are allowed to dock, but states could make exceptions.

“The Maritime Labour
Convention makes clear that Australia is duty-bound to offer medical care to
crew on ships in its territorial waters,” she said.

“Under international law, a
state might refuse access to its ports for a ship that poses a serious and
unacceptable safety, environmental, health or security threat to it. A pandemic
would no doubt count in this regard.”

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