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Stranded seafarers return to Pacific Islands

Kiribati seafarers that have been stranded on a foreign land have finally been able to return home after departing Australia.

So happy were the marooned seafarers that they broke out into song.

Most of the men have been docked in Brisbane for eight months, waiting to get back to Kiribati in the midst of hysteria behind the worldwide pandemic.

Still untouched by Covid-19 in the country, finally the government relented to their wishes and have given tentative approval to open up its island borders from January 1.

The Kiribati nationals, who have been living their isolation out of a suitcase in hotel rooms, have had to spend most days volunteering while bonding near the Brisbane Port of The Mission to Seafarers.

But it’s the bond they have harboured for the generosity of the Brisbane mission’s centre volunteers that was delivered full of harmonistic voice in traditional renditions of Gilbertese songs on Thursday.


“From us, we will never forget what you have done for us,” Bwerentetaake ‘Johnny’ Toanuea said during an emotional farewell after singing.

“We will always keep in touch with you all, no matter what we learn or wherever we go.

“That is how we feel and how we will miss you all.”

Seven seafarers took up the opportunity to fly out of Brisbane but to only get as far as Fiji for now.

They plan to wait out their time of exclusion from Kiribati until the new year.

Other colleagues and friends have chosen to do an assortment of work in various parts of Australia for several weeks until the full extent of conditions of entry back into Kiribati are substantiated.

The concern is worth the risk for Tekaiti Topio for a possible New Year arrival.

“For my decision, I want to go to Fiji with the plan from our government that we all want to return home, but we’re not sure,” he said.

“We are afraid that we are not sure (that) we are going to get that date or maybe later.”
Mr Topio has not been back to Kiribati for “at least a year”.

That is not unusual in a job at sea, which he has held since 2013, where commitments to treacherous daily tasks can be up to nine months at a time.

kiribati seafarers goodbye
Kiribati seafarers pose for one last photo after eight months with their volunteer friends at the Brisbane mission centre. Picture: Andrew Mathieson

But after six months trawling from New Zealand, to Singapore, to Malaysia, before stepping onto firm ground in Australia for months on end, he is more worried about his wife and young daughter should the government get cold feet and shift back the date further while stranded again, but closer in Fiji.

“The problem is that they are still afraid of us,” he said.

“They don’t want us to transfer this kind of pandemic home.

“We know we are safe here and we have tried to communicate that with our MPs in parliament.”

The base wages of seafarers go into their Kiribati bank accounts so their family can access the cash.
Although Mr Topio admits that money is not an issue because “you can just go fish”.

But the high costs of living in Australia for so long has forced the centre’s volunteers to help out.

“We lobbied to try to get the shipping company to provide them with some cash (from their wages) because otherwise they couldn’t afford to buy things like toothpaste,” Brisbane seafarers centre supervisor Heather Turner said.

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That included mustering up $A5000 ($US3500) worth of phone cards so the men could call Kiribati.

“We’re lucky we are in a position where we can actually do that for them,” Ms Turner said.

“Obviously money doesn’t grow on trees, but that’s the most important thing is for these guys to keep in touch with their families.”

The only respite has been when the men were able to catch up most weekends with several different pockets of the Kiribati community living around Brisbane and Gold Coast, to indulge in their culture.

The home away from home at the mission initially saw eight Kiribati seafarers arrive, before weeks later the numbers peaked at 43 of their countrymen living 5000 kilometres away.

The shipping companies eventually stripped all the Kiribati men worldwide off of their vessels.

The first four men to leave were given a three-month contract to join a passing freighter to work on.

Feeling more than a bit frustrated, 21 of the remaining 39 men have since flown to South Australia to pick fruit and earn ongoing incomes for their family.

After corresponding with shipping companies on the future of the seven men that have headed for a Fijian stopover, the mission was able to clarify whether the seafarers will get paid or not.

“According to their contract, they only get paid until they get to Fiji,” Ms Turner said.

“The shipping company pays for their accommodation and food, but they won’t pay more anymore.”

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