Two months have already passed since 11 Bangladeshi crew members were detained by the Philippines security forces in mid-April, but their repatriation remains uncertain despite lobbying from the Bangladesh side.
On April 11, the Filipino navy detained 11 Bangladeshi, four Chinese, and 51 Philippines nationals from the sea of the southern province of Zamboanga Sibugay, Philippines, when their cargo ship MV Diamond 8 was intercepted.
The Chinese flag merchant ship was carrying 27,180 bags or 1,359 tons of rice worth nearly Philippine Peso 68 million from Vietnam. The navy challenged the vessel while it was trying to unload the goods offshore.
The Bangladeshi nationals were held as they failed to show valid documents, including passports, said officials of Bangladesh foreign ministry and shipping department.
The ship’s captain Lin Yang Yin, a Chinese national, who was supposed to keep the legal documents on behalf of the team, failed to produce any document.
Since then, the vessel, which was handed over to the Customs Authority Philippines, has been kept at inner anchorage of Zamboanga port.
Since mid 2017, Philippines banned rice import to protect local farmers. All those crew members are now living in the ship since no charge has been brought against them as of yet.
“The 11 Bangladeshi crew members joined the ship from Vietnam and were caught by the Philippines Navy for suspected smuggling. They were then taken to the port of Zamboanga. For the last two months, those crew members were engaged in unloading the smuggled rice there,” said Commodore Syed Ariful Islam, director general of Bangladesh’s Department of Shipping.
He said the Bangladeshi crew is innocent, and not involved with any kind of illegal operation as they joined the vessel only for work.
“When the immigration officers boarded the ship, the crew failed to show the documents as their captain failed to provide them. But they all had documents. So we are trying to convey the message and present those documents to the authorities concerned,” he added.
Currently, director (welfare) of Seamen & Emigration Welfare under department of shipping Bangladesh and Capt Syed Imam Hossain, managing director at Ayar Shipping Services (manning agent of Diamond 8) is in the Philippines to monitor the issue and find way to repatriate the Bangladeshis.
Bangladesh ambassador to Philippines Asad Alam Siam said none of the seamen were detained. Rather they were not allowed to come ashore as they failed to provide any document to the immigration authority.
“Local immigration has informed us that technically they are not detained. There shall be charges prior to detaining someone and the charges will be formed after release of the goods stored at the ship. The goods were released last week, now the customs and the immigration will prepare their reports on the incident. Based on this action will be taken on whether they will be detained or not,” he told the Dhaka Tribune on Monday.
The authorities concerned are constantly in touch with the crew and the agencies concerned since the incident.
The Bangladesh embassy held meetings with the Philippines customs, immigration and naval officials, in addition to moving the issue via diplomatic channel for their release. However, since this is a legal issue, it is taking time, officials said.
The embassy cannot do anything aside from lobbying as this is a legal process, said officials.
“We have contacted the customs officials, immigration officials, and naval commander of the area where the ship was intercepted. We have requested the immigration to pardon the Bangladeshis on humanitarian grounds if they have violated any immigration rule,” said ambassador Siam.
The embassy also notified the matter to some international NGOs and charity organizations that work with mariners’ protection.
“We can only continue the lobby and request the authorities since it is a lengthy legal issue,” said Siam.
Shipping department’s Director General Syed Ariful Islam said they are making sincere effort to bring the Bangladeshis back.
“We are doing everything at our level best,” he said.