This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
Stanley Jungco had only ever been to sea on a fishing boat once before, and he had vowed to his sisters that he would never go again.
But in September 2018, tempted by the promise of a monthly salary of $380, the 24-year-old went back to sea as crew on a Chinese-owned trawler.
The money would be enough for him to buy back the land his father had pawned and buy some for himself too. He could settle down and marry his girlfriend. One more trip would be the difference between a life spent jumping from one odd job to another, and stability.
Five months ago, Jungco had an accident on board and later died from complications. Worse, as a result of restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic, his body remains in a mortuary in the southern Chinese province of Fuzhou.
“My mother didn’t want him to go, but he was determined to work and help our family,” his sister Rica Jungco told Al Jazeera.
The Philippines is at the centre of a maritime crisis that has left thousands of seafarers locked down in their ships and exiled from home. The island archipelago, which has a maritime history dating back to the Galleon Trade during Spanish colonial rule, supplies about a quarter of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers. Last year, they sent home some $6.14bn in remittances.
Sealed borders and ports closed to curb the spread of COVID-19 have kept some 300,000 seafarers quarantined on their ships, with little to no chance of being replaced by a fresh crew, according to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF).
And if anyone dies, varying country health protocols on the repatriation of remains, discontinued flights and inter-governmental bureaucracy means families are facing heartbreaking obstacles to claiming the remains of their loved ones.
A long time at sea
Debbie and Raul Calopez’s 11-year marriage was mostly long distance. She worked as a domestic helper in Hong Kong and Lebanon while Raul stayed at home to raise their two children.
Debbie was still in Lebanon finishing her contract when Raul boarded the 7874 Fu Yuan Yu, a Chinese fishing vessel bound for the Atlantic Ocean, in March 2019. “He called me from the airport, told me he loved me and promised that when he came back, our family would finally be complete,” she said.
That day would never come.
On December 31, 2019, while hauling in their catch, Raul fainted, hitting his head on a steel pipe as he fell to the floor. In a handwritten letter penned by crew members, Raul complained of a headache and body pains after the accident. The men took turns looking after him during their breaks, but he became weaker.
“We tried to ask for medical assistance, but the captain wouldn’t listen. They gave us medicine, but it was in Chinese characters we couldn’t understand,” said Jesus Gaboni, one of Raul’s crewmates.
On January 19, Raul finally got medical attention, but by then it was too late. A few hours later, he was dead.
Gaboni and the other men took his body, wrapped it in a blanket and buried it in the ship’s freezer. But as the pandemic accelerated, first in China and then around the world, the 7874 Fu Yuan Yu was stranded in China.
The crew members managed to return to the Philippines when travel restrictions were eased in July. They were transferred to another boat with crew from other company vessels stranded by the pandemic but, in the confusion, Raul’s body was left behind – in the freezer of the 7874.
After the crew disembarked, the ship went back to sea.
According to correspondence between Debbie and the Philippine Embassy in Chile, the vessel’s location on the high seas blurs country jurisdictions and accountabilities, complicating the repatriation of Raul’s remains. The vessel may possibly dock in October and Raul’s body may finally be retrieved. By then, it will have been almost a year since his death.
“It’s been so long already. I just want my husband’s remains to be returned to us. Then we can all be together again, like he promised,” Debbie said.
Global Maritime Crew and Global Offshore & Marine Manpower Solution, the manpower agencies that recruited most of the crew for the Fu Yuan Yu vessels, could not be reached for comment.
Most dangerous job in the world
Seafaring is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
Migrants on deep-sea fishing boats spend months at a time on the high seas, working in the most perilous conditions and at risk of physical abuse in a situation some have likened to slavery.
Al Jazeera interviewed dozens of migrants.
They spoke of a life dictated by the availability of the catch – hauling in squid, fish and crab, cleaning and freezing it at all hours of the day and night.
“Commercial fishing is largely unregulated and unsupervised. It is practically lawless,” said Rossen Karavatchev, ITF Fisheries Section Coordinator.
Among the major countries operating commercial fishing vessels, only Thailand has ratified the Work in Fishing Convention, which sets international standards for the safety and protection of crew, while South Africa is the only country in the world that allows port inspection of fishing vessels.
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned ships into virtual floating prisons, with some sailors now spending between 17 and 21 months at sea. The average contract is about 11.
“Getting sick and the chances of dying on board are much more than before. If you get sick on board, sorry. You can’t get medical assistance and you can’t get out. If you die, you may be thrown into the sea for a sea burial,” added Karavatchev.
The International Labour Organization estimates about 41,000 people working on trawlers are migrants, mostly from Southeast Asia. However, this number could be as high as 100,000 as many people are undocumented or trafficked into sailing in international waters.
As Marla de Asis, a researcher at the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila put it, “Once seafarers are on board, who gets to check on how they are doing?”
‘He was our baby’
After Jungco set sail on his fateful voyage – to the rich fishing grounds of the southern Atlantic – his family did not hear from him for more than a year.
It was only in April, when Jungco’s ship docked in Peru and he finally had access to a mobile signal, that they could speak.
He told his sisters that he was on his way home and that his ship would meet up with other fishing vessels off the coast of China en route to the Philippines. What Jungco did not tell them was that he had had an accident a few days before. The crew was dismantling fishing rigs and other gear in preparation for going home when a steel bar slammed into his thigh.
Jungco’s crewmates were making similar calls to their own families, frantically trying to get updates over a patchy mobile signal. By then, news of the COVID-19 virus had reached every corner of the globe – except the deep seas.
They had heard scraps of information from the English their Chinese captain mustered, but the crew could not believe it. They thought the pandemic was an excuse to keep them from going home.
When their boat docked in China, Jungco texted his sisters again on June 1. He told them they had been prohibited from disembarking and had been forced to stay on board.
By that time, Jungco’s condition had deteriorated. His left thigh had turned purple and was swollen. Video footage taken by crew members shows him lying in his bunk bed, visibly weak and having difficulty breathing.
The next message the sisters received was on June 6, from a crew member. Jungco had died.
“He was our baby, our youngest,” sobbed Rosalie Jungco-Pacheco, Jungco’s sister who spoke to Al Jazeera via phone from their hometown in the central Philippines. The cause of his death has not yet been determined.
The oldest in the family of 11 children, Rosalie is 18 years older than Jungco. “When he was growing up, I was the one who would brush his teeth and bathe him. It hurts so much to think of how much he suffered without any of us beside him,” she said.
When travel restrictions eased in July, the crew was allowed to sail back to the Philippines but Jungco’s body was left behind. Through updates from the Philippine Embassy in China, Rica and Rosalie were able to confirm that he had been taken to a mortuary in Fuzhou.
“Repatriating seafarers, in particular, is made more challenging due to docking and disembarkation restrictions for vessels set by local authorities and the severely limited number of flights,” the Department of Foreign Affairs – Manila (DFA) said in a statement.
The DFA has been working with various governments to assist stranded seafarers all over the world, its latest data shows that more than 66,000 seafarers affected by the pandemic have been brought home.
A bittersweet goodbye
Last July, Ann-Ann Geraldino stood at Pier 15 of the Manila Port Area as the crew of various Fu Yuan Yu fishing vessels that had been stuck in China as a result of the pandemic finally disembarked.
She was there to collect the remains of her brother, Felix Mark Guial, who was on board the Fu Yuan Yu 7886. Her husband held her hand and her brother-in-law was at her side. A government official and a doctor in hazmat suits stood behind them to witness his body being handed over by the port authorities.
The details are scant, but Geraldino said he suffered a stomach ache while onboard and never got better. She is certain that COVID-19 was not the cause of death. Nonetheless, health protocols mandated cremation and they went straight from the dock to a funeral home.
“Our parents call him Ar-Ar. All of us 10 kids have repeating nicknames. But we siblings call him “ears” or “rat” because of his protruding ears,” said Geraldino.
It was bittersweet, she said, when she received her brother’s ashes.
“It’s very painful especially for his partner and young kids, but at least my brother is home. I hope the other families get to have their last good-bye, too.”