It took two years, but more than 600 Kiribati seafarers stranded around the world thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic have returned home.

Six seafarers touched down in Tarawa, the Pacific island country's capital, on Monday after efforts from shipowners, unions, non-governmental organisations and the Republic of Kiribati government, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) said.

“It’s an enormous relief to finally see all the Kiribati seafarers returned home to their families, but it should never have been this difficult to get these seafarers home,” ICS secretary general Guy Platten said in a statement.

“Governments must look at the hardship these key workers have faced and ask if it was really necessary. We must learn from this lesson and make sure policy is put in place that means it never happens again.”

The 600 seafarers had been caught up in the crew change crisis, where world governments, concerned about the spread of the respiratory illness, prevented seafarers from departing their ships and new ones getting on.

Their cases were complicated by Kiribati's decision to close its borders, which kept the country free of Covid-19 through much of the pandemic.

Only in January 2022, did the country's government implement lockdown measures following passengers from an international flight testing positive. Prior to that, Kiribati had reported only two Covid-19 infections.

Some of the Kiribati seafarers were provided housing in Germany or Denmark last year. Others were allowed to return home, with shipowners joining together to hire a cruise ship to take them to Fiji and a flight on to Kiribati.

Since the start of the year, the ICS said 73 Kiribati seafarers had been repatriated in groups of approximately 10, arriving on chartered flights.

“I am pleased to hear that these seafarers will finally be reunited with their loved ones, some after being stranded overseas for nearly two years,” said International Maritime Organization secretary-general Kitack Lim.

“Their story of extended time at sea – and then on land to get home - has been repeated many times over throughout the pandemic. Seafarers need to be designated as key workers by all states, so that their travel and repatriation can be facilitated.”