The Red Sea crisis and the attacks on commercial vessels

19 Feb 2024

For months now, seafarers navigating in the red sea and the narrow Bab- el-Mandeb Strait that links Mediterranean Sea to Asia, have faced a growing threat of drone strikes, missile attacks and even hijackings. The lives and safety of our seafarers are put at risk, with attacks increasing on a daily basis.

The attacks are claimed to target vessels which have links to Israel or that have called at Israeli ports, although in many cases these links have proven to be false.

Furthermore, during the period of the Red Sea crisis, there has been an associated increase in opportunistic attacks by Somali pirates. Recent incidents, have fueled fear of a new threat of piracy off the east coast of Africa and now the area at risk stretches from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

The ETF, in a joint statement with our Social Partner the European Community Shipowners’ Association (ECSA), have expressed their deep concerns over attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden

“Measures to ensure the safety and well-being of seafarers are critical and necessary to enhance the security of vital trade routes. Seafarers are key workers keeping supply chains moving and deserve protection” said Livia Spera, ETF General Secretary.

Current situation and the ETF position:

Although many ships are diverted to transit through the Cape of Good Hope, there are still many vessels transiting the area. The situation continues to escalate and the fact that until now there are no lives lost or any serious injuries is only a matter of coincidence and almost a miracle.

Shipping companies must continue to re-route their ships until it is safe to travel the Red Sea, taking in parallel into consideration the fact that, even for those seafarers who are now being re-routed, it means extra days onboard ship during the long journey.

The ETF is calling once more for the safety of seafarers to be paramount. All the disruption on the supply chain, the skyrocketing of the shipping prices and the insurance coverage together with the overall impact in the economy are very serious consequences, but are only secondary commercial considerations in comparison with the risk posed for the safety of seafarers. Our primary concern is the safety of seafarers and the focus at this time needs to be about their health and safety. Seafarers are the beating heart of the shipping industry, and their ability to perform their duties without fear for their safety is essential. The ETF is calling all the National and International Authorities to undertake their responsibilities and to take a stand on the rights and protection of seafarers in the Red Sea.

Furthermore, following continued incidents and escalation of conflict in the Southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden that are threatening the safety of transiting seafarers and vessels, the International Bargaining Forum – Warlike Operation Areas Committee (IBF WOAC) have agreed additional measures to support seafarers’ safety and welfare.

It is of fundamental importance that the seafarers have the right to abstain from joining or leaving a journey, refusing to proceed through the red sea and to be entitled to repatriation at the Company’s cost. With effect from 16th February 2024, the IBF WOAC have agreed to expand the High-Risk Area to include the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters and additionally agreed to include it into the existing conditions for the designated IBF High Risk Area for the Southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the seafarers’ right to refuse to sail into the area with repatriation at company’s cost and compensation equal to two (2) months basic wages.

It is also very important, the master to have the ability to judge, without consequences, whether it is safer to navigate in certain areas.

Possible establishment of an EU individual military operation:

The security situation in the Red Sea is continuing to deteriorate and the area grew even more volatile despite the current operations and joint efforts in the area.  The decision for a separate operation to protect the shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden is a positive step to address the security challenges in the area, but military operations are not expected to stop the Houthis from launching attacks in the short term.

To address the emerging crisis, there is a need to take a holistic approach to security in the region for a solution to guarantee the safety of shipping in the area in the long term. More concerted efforts are required to address the root causes of the crisis, including coordinated efforts and diplomatic initiatives, contributing to maintaining the freedom of navigation. Particular importance should be paid, the operation not to undermine any current diplomatic efforts and initiatives.

Putting the lives of seafarers at risk is not acceptable and an operation should be able to guarantee the health and the safety of seafarers. Ships and crew must be protected in a form of a naval shield.

An EU individual operation must be preventive, defensive without undertaking operations on land and proactive in preventing attacks before they happen.

More links

The European Parliament adopted on the 18th of January a Resolution condemning the recent attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and calling for immediate and concerted EU efforts including a naval operation.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2722 was adopted on 10 January 2024: Adopting Resolution 2722 (2024) by Recorded Vote, Security Council Demands Houthis Immediately Stop Attacks on Merchant, Commercial Vessels in Red Sea | UN Press

Also see the ITF calls following the red sea attacks below:

Seafarers rights at the Warlike and High-Risk Areas: