This story was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center.
Stanley Jungco had been on a fishing boat only once before, and he had sworn to his sisters that he would never go again.
But in September 2018, the 24-year-old returned to sea as the crew of a Chinese trawler, tempted by the promise of a monthly salary of $ 380.
The money would be enough to buy back the land his father had mortgaged and to buy something for himself too. He could settle down and marry his girlfriend. Another journey would be the difference between a life of jumping from one casual job to the next and stability.
Jungco had an accident on board five months ago and later died of complications. Worse, due to restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, his body is being held in a morgue in southern China’s Fuzhou Province.
“My mother didn’t want him to leave, but he was determined to work and help our family,” his sister Rica Jungco told Al Jazeera.
The Philippines is at the center of a maritime crisis that has locked thousands of seafarers in their ships and banned from their homes. The island archipelago, whose maritime history goes back to the galleon trade during Spanish colonial rule, supplies around a quarter of the 1.2 million seafarers in the world. Last year they sent home transfers totaling $ 6.14 billion.
Sealed borders and ports that have been closed to contain the spread of COVID-19 have quarantined around 300,000 seafarers on their ships, and according to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), there is little chance of them being re-crewed be replaced.
Stanley Jungo, 25, was in an accident aboard a deep-sea fishing vessel when a steel rod hit his thigh in April. He ignored the injury, but it got worse and six weeks later he was dead. His body is in a morgue in southern China [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]And when someone dies, the country’s diverse health protocols for the return of remains, interrupted flights, and interstate bureaucracy mean families face heartbreaking obstacles when it comes to claiming their loved one’s remains.
A long time at sea
For the most part, Debbie and Raul Calopez’s eleven-year marriage was a long way off. She worked as a domestic help in Hong Kong and Lebanon while Raul stayed at home to raise her two children.
Debbie was still in Lebanon and ended her contract when Raul boarded the 7874 Fu Yuan Yu, a Chinese fishing vessel for the Atlantic, in March 2019. “He called me from the airport, told me he loved me and he promised that when he came back our family would finally be complete,” she said.
That day would never come.
On December 31, 2019, Raul passed out and hit a steel pipe with his head as he fell to the ground. In a handwritten letter from crew members, Raul complained of headaches and body aches after the accident. The men took turns tending to him during their breaks, but he was getting weaker.
“We tried to ask for medical help, but the captain wasn’t listening. They gave us medicine, but it was in Chinese characters that we couldn’t understand, ”said Jesus Gaboni, one of Raul’s crew members.
On January 19, Raul finally received medical attention, but by then it was too late. A few hours later he was dead.
Jesus Gaboni, left, with other Filipino crew members on board their fishing vessel. The man on the right, Raul Calopez, fell ill on board and eventually died. Gaboni helped store Calopez’s body in the ship’s freezer, where it is still kept today [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]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 7,874 Fu Yuan Yu was stranded in China.
Crew members were able to return to the Philippines when travel restrictions were eased in July. They were transferred to another boat with crew members from other company ships stranded by the pandemic, but in the confusion, Raul’s body was left behind – in the 7874’s freezer.
After the crew disembarked, the ship went back to sea.
According to correspondence between Debbie and the Philippine Embassy in Chile, the ship’s location at sea obliterates the country’s powers and responsibilities and makes it difficult to repatriate Raul’s remains. The ship could possibly dock in October and Raul’s body could finally be found. By then, almost a year has passed since his death.
“It’s been so long. I just want my husband’s remains to be returned to us. Then we can all be together again as he promised, ”said Debbie.
Global Maritime Crew and Global Offshore & Marine Manpower Solution, the recruiting agencies that recruited most of the crew for the Fu Yuan Yu ships, could not be reached for comment.
The most dangerous job in the world
Seafaring is one of the most dangerous tasks in the world.
Migrants on deep-sea fishing boats spend months on the high seas, working in the most dangerous conditions, and at risk of physical abuse in what some have compared to slavery.
Jesus Gaboni at home in the Philippines. He was the elder of the Filipino crew and placed Raul Calopez’s body in the ship’s freezer after his death. It’s still there and the boat is back at sea [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]Al Jazeera interviewed dozens of migrants.
They spoke of a life that was determined by the availability of catch – hauling in squid, fish and crabs, cleaning and freezing them at any time of the day or night.
“Commercial fishing is largely unregulated and unsupervised. It’s practically lawless, ”said Rossen Karavatchev, ITF Fisheries Coordinator.
Among the main countries that operate commercial fishing vessels, only Thailand has ratified the Convention on Work in Fisheries, which sets international standards for the safety and protection of crews, while South Africa is the only country in the world that has port inspection of fishing vessels allowed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned ships into virtual floating prisons. Some seafarers now spend between 17 and 21 months at sea. The average contract is around 11.
“Getting sick and the chances of dying on board are much greater than before. If you get sick on board, I’m sorry. You can’t get medical help and you can’t get out. If you die you may be thrown into the sea for a burial at sea, ”Karavatchev added.
About a quarter of the world’s seafarers are from the Philippines [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]The International Labor Organization estimates that around 41,000 people who work on trawlers are migrants, mostly from Southeast Asia. That number could go as high as 100,000, however, as many people are undocumented or taken to sail in international waters.
Marla de Asis, a researcher at the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila, said: “If there are seafarers on board, who can check how they are doing?”
“He was our baby”
After Jungco began his fateful journey to the rich fishing grounds of the South Atlantic, his family heard nothing from him for over a year.
It wasn’t until 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 other fishing vessels off the coast of China en route to the Philippines. What Jungco didn’t tell them was that he had had an accident a few days earlier. The crew was dismantling fishing tackle and other equipment in preparation for the trip home when a steel bar slammed into his thigh.
Jungco crew members made similar phone calls to their own families, desperately trying to get updates over an inconsistent cellular signal. By then, news of the COVID-19 virus had reached every corner of the world – with the exception of the deep sea.
They had heard information from the English that their Chinese captain had compiled, but the crew couldn’t 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 1st. He informed them that they were forbidden to disembark and that they were forced to stay on board.
Jungco’s crew members wrote down the details of his final moments on board the deep-sea ship. His family hopes they will bring him home soon [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]By this point, Jungco’s condition had worsened. His left thigh was purple and swollen. Video recordings of crew members show him in his bunk bed, visibly weak and difficult to breathe.
The next message the sisters received was from a crew member on June 6th. Jungco had died.
“He was our baby, our youngest,” sobbed Rosalie Jungco-Pacheco, Jungco’s sister, who spoke to Al Jazeera by phone from her hometown in the central Philippines. The cause of death has not yet been clarified.
Rosalie is the oldest in the family with 11 children and 18 years older than Jungco. “When he was growing up, I was the one who brushed his teeth and bathed him. It hurts so much to think about how much he suffered without one of us next to him, ”she said.
When travel restrictions eased in July, the crew were allowed to sail back to the Philippines, but Jungco’s body was left behind. Updates from the Philippine embassy in China enabled Rica and Rosalie to confirm that he had been taken to a morgue in Fuzhou.
“In particular, the repatriation of seafarers is becoming more difficult due to the docking and disembarkation restrictions for ships set by the local authorities and the very limited number of flights,” said a statement by the Manila Foreign Ministry (EDA).
The FDFA has worked with various governments to help stranded seafarers around the world. The latest data shows that more than 66,000 seafarers affected by the pandemic have been brought home.
A bittersweet farewell
Last July, Ann-Ann Geraldino stood at Pier 15 in the Manila port area crewing various Fu Yuan Yu fishing vessels that got stuck in China as a result of the pandemic.
Stanley Jungco, 25, died on June 6th on a Chinese deep-sea fishing vessel. His family is still waiting for his body, which is in a morgue in southern China, to be returned [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]She was there to collect the remains of her brother Felix Mark Guial, who was aboard the Fu Yuan Yu 7886. Her husband held her hand and her brother-in-law was by her side. A government official and a doctor in protective suits stood behind them to see his body being handed over by port authorities.
Details are sparse, but Geraldino said he suffered a stomach ache while on board and has never gotten better. She is certain that COVID-19 was not the cause of death. Even so, the health protocols called for a cremation and went straight from the dock to a funeral home.
“Our parents call him Ar-Ar. All of us 10 children have repetitive nicknames. But we siblings call it “ears” or “rat” because of its 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 children, but at least my brother is at home. I hope that the other families will also have their last farewell. “