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Russia may create safe corridor to release foreign ships from Ukraine

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One month after it trapped dozens of foreign ships in Ukraine and damaged five with missile strikes, the government of Russia claims that it will now allow foreign-flag vessels to depart through a safety corridor, beginning Friday morning.

“The Russian Federation creates a humanitarian corridor for the exit of foreign ships from Ukrainian ports into the open sea, which is a safe strip for the movement of ships from the assembly area located 20 miles south-east of [Chornomorsk] port,” Mikhail Mizintsev, Chief of Russia’s National Defense Management Center, said in a statement.

If the corridor is opened as described, and if Russian forces do not further attack merchant ships in transit, the arrangement will provide much-needed relief for hundreds of foreign seafarers who are trapped in and around Odesa. Nearly 70 vessels are expected to participate, Mizintsev said.

The news arrives just in time: according to the International Chamber of Shipping, at least one of the vessels stuck in Ukraine is down to several days’ worth of food, and resupply options are limited.

At least some shipowners who are affected by the blockade have been working to repatriate foreign crews and replace them with local Ukrainian seafarers while awaiting further developments. The switch is challenging because Ukraine has implemented mandatory mobilization for all men between the ages of 18-60. Only Ukrainian seafarers above this age range are legally available for crew change, and that pool is limited.

Other maritime stakeholders are working to help Ukrainian seafarers’ families depart to safer locations. A charitable working group – the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine (MTWTU) and ship manager V.Group – have put funding and organization in place to get Ukrainian seafarers’ families out of the country to safe accommodations in Romania and Poland. They can stay for one week, free of charge, and the group provides onsite support for their journey onwards.

The ITF has provided initial funds of $200,000 to kickstart the project, in cooperation with the ITF Seafarers’ Trust. The group is calling on the industry to provide support and funding to sustain the initiative.

“Our thoughts are with everyone caught up in this conflict,” said David Heindel, Chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Trust and Chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section. “I hope that as our humanitarian efforts continue, we can persuade other companies to join in and contribute to funding.”

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