Modern slavery, COVID-19 and missing loved ones: Stella Maris chaplain lifts lid on life as a seafarer

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Ahead of Sea Sunday on 14 July, a chaplain for seafarers and fishers in the south of England has revealed the myriad of challenges that seafarers face, including threats of modern slavery, extended periods of time away from loved ones, and loneliness and isolation.

Deacon Nick O’Neill, the Senior Area Port Chaplain for the South of England and Wales for Catholic charity Stella Maris, spoke to the Bishops’ Conference about his experiences ministering to seafarers, which included seafarers trapped on a boat for over a year during COVID-19.


Speaking about his experiences during the pandemic, Deacon Nick said:

“There was a crew of seafarers predominantly from Myanmar. And there were seven men that effectively just took a stance against the company and said we’ve been on the ship for 13 months now, and we really want to go home.

“So the company did get them off the ship and arranged for a hotel and a chartered flight. But it was a week until they could fly home.”

He added:

“One of my chaplains went to pick them up… effectively they’d been on a piece of metal, industrial-looking, with a tiny cabin, humming, vibrating, clanking for over a year.

“When he took them off the ship for the first time, they went to a place called Ports Downhill, which is near Portsmouth. And these seven men, the one thing they were desperate to do was to feel grass under their feet and in between their toes. So they took their shoes and socks off.

“They ran in the grass like children and they were so excited and so happy that they started making WhatsApp video calls to their family back home in Myanmar. They were finally off the ship and could feel the earth and were able to feel human again.”

Modern slavery

Deacon Nick also had an encounter with modern slavery, and staged a dramatic intervention to liberate the victims:

“About three years ago, during COVID, one of my colleagues up in the north of England received a message from a Sri Lankan fisherman who he’d met previously on a visit and he mentioned he was on a ship with four other men and that they were all worried about their lives and how they were being treated and were asking for support.”

Because the seafarers were in Shoreham, the south of England, Deacon Nick was asked to go and investigate. What he found was distressing:

“The five of them had been part of a modern slavery ring. We contacted the police who went down to the boat with border force, took them into the police station, took the skipper and first mate into custody, and contacted Stella Maris again to ask how we could support the fishers.

“We managed to find them accommodation that first evening they were taken off the ship. We liaised with the police to get them to the hotel. We provided them with clothing, with toiletries, with some food.

“Everything they had was left on the boat because it was effectively a crime scene. So the police had cordoned it all off and they were only allowed to come off in the clothes they were wearing.”

With the help of a generous priest, Stella Maris looked after the five men for two weeks, eventually supporting them into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which is the government’s system for looking after victims of modern slavery and trafficking.

Deacon Nick said: “Sadly, they are still in that system. It’s been about three years since they were taken off the boat.”

Missing family and isolation

According to Deacon Nick, the biggest challenge that seafarers face is isolation, and being away from their family for a long time:

“They’re working to provide for their families, which is a noble goal to be able to work hard and earn money, which goes back to provide for the family. But of course, the trade-off for that career and that money is that they are leaving behind the people that they’re closest to and people they love.

“The time away does impact on their mental well-being and their emotional state and I’d say that isolation is the biggest challenge we’re seeing.”

Sea Sunday and how to help

Deacon Nick also talked about Sea Sunday, “a day that we can specifically try to remember all those people that have worked at sea and all those people that are currently working at sea”.

He said Catholics can support the work of Stella Maris with prayer, volunteering, and donating money – or even knitting woolly hats.

He finished saying: “Thank you to everybody that already does support Stella Maris.”


You can hear more from Deacon Nick O’Neill by listening to a special Catholic News podcast.

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