Human Rights at Sea sat down with Advisory Board member Toon Van de Sande to discuss his White Paper which outlines his thoughts on how the welfare sector can better develop a continuum of care and looks at the determined needs of people working at sea, including the services currently being delivered by the welfare sector and other psycho-social and legal experts. 

In this exclusive interview, we asked Toon what prompted the idea for his White Paper, the reaction it has received so far, and what he would like to see from the welfare sector moving forward. 

What has the reaction been from the welfare sector versus the reaction from seafarers? 

"Individuals in the welfare sector who have little decision-making power have responded constructively. They have great ideas, want to improve their skill set and understand that they must act on human rights abuses at sea. However, they also know they do not necessarily have all the required knowledge and skills, so they must cooperate with other experts in the field.

Those who have been leading welfare organisations for a long time have been more cautious because their interests lay elsewhere, and they are sometimes competing with other like-minded organisations.

Newcomers to the welfare world usually look at human rights abuses towards seafarers and the situation they face from a fresh perspective. 

The seafarers who responded felt acknowledged. They have been highlighted as the directors and experts of their own lives. 

When decisions have to be made, seafarers see that short-term interests, such as quick profit, too often prevail and have pointed out that human rights do not always play a role in rehabilitation and justice, and they have indicated that there is still a lot going wrong in the sector, including well-being and mental health. 

Investing in the crew's well-being will ultimately yield benefits for all parties." 

Seafarers looking out at sea
Why do you think it is vital that welfare support is executed by a variety of experts who do not overstep the mark of their profession but instead work together?

"Experts need to agree on what they do, why they do it and how to do it, as well as think about the possible consequences of their actions. 

Taking this into account, the welfare sector must also recognise the limitations of their profession and, therefore, the need to collaborate with other specialists. This is one of the key messages of the White Paper.

A welfare worker is not a doctor, lawyer or psychologist. 

We must also remember the potential legal consequences of the wrong advice, which could lead to more significant damage.

The 'Continuum of Care' is a promising tool that could help position various support and assistance into a workable framework." 

Toon Van de Sande with seafarers onboard ship
What would you like to see from the welfare sector moving forward? 

"I think it is quite simple. I would like the welfare sector to guarantee that human rights at sea are protected and to ensure a good, transparent, verifiable, and enforceable legal system.

I see great potential in the Continuum of Care because the maritime sector needs transparency to create legal certainty. 

Abusers must be named and made public; the more organisations and individuals witness and work together, the more difficult it will become to disregard or devalue human rights at sea. 

The idea of a Continuum of Care enables organisations and people to share information in a professional and meaningful way to overcome grievances together.

For me, the core of this White Paper is that aid workers are not the experts in seafarers' lives. Seafarers are not helpless and hopeless 'elements' in the industry. They are robust, ambitious, career-driven, resourceful and resilient individuals. 

The critical question is how the industry should take this forward to establish an enforceable baseline for welfare workers. 

Do we establish a working group to drive this initiative? Do we lobby members of the IMO (International Maritime Organisation)? Or is it something every organisation should do innately? 

To ensure excellent and deserving care for every seafarer worldwide, the answer for me is all of the above."

How do you think abuses can be prevented, breaches punished, and victims supported?

"Sometimes people are uncomfortable with change. This uneasy feeling needs to be embraced and used to drive action.

The industry must dare to make mistakes so that they can learn from them. 

Several key individuals in the maritime environment could get together to improve the current model. Starting with small manageable projects, reporting successes and nurturing each other. 

A steering group could help to guide this process." 

Seafarer looking out at sea
What prompted the idea of writing Empowering People Working at Sea from Training to Justice?

"My answer to this question is very personal. To be honest, as a pastor/welfare worker, I've made pretty much every mistake I now warn others of. I've acted like a psychologist at times. 

Fortunately, I worked with seafarers who, based on their pride and self-esteem, showed me that my advice was aimed at the wrong individuals. 

While working for the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program (now part of ISWAN), my eyes were opened, and I soon saw that I was not alone in overestimating my knowledge and skills, and I gradually came to the vision and ideas I have endeavoured to put down in this White Paper. I am now self-employed, I felt free to question and criticise the current system, which is not always well received. 

However, not being accountable to anyone is both my strength and my weakness. I can't achieve anything independently, so I put my thoughts on paper for others to digest and hopefully move forward. 

Fortunately, Human Rights at Sea has given my White Paper publicity, and several key figures in the maritime world have reviewed the paper and provided constructive feedback. 

Therefore, I am no longer alone."

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Photo credits: Toon Van de Sande