Stowaways won’t go away

A 100% increase in the cost of stowaway incidents in the past ten years means that stowaways cost the international shipping industry more than $20 million per year.

The trend has prompted Japanese ship operator, NYK, and protection & indemnity insurer, the UK Club, to get together to address the problem. The conference was attended by fifty members of NYK senior regional management, terminal representatives from major Chinese ports (including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Shekou and Shanghai), and representatives from the UK Club.

NYK wants to raise awareness of stowaway problems among its shore-based and terminal operators in China, and of the preventive measures available to reduce the number of incidents.

The UK Club’s Peter Lau said that in 2007, his club was involved in around 120 stowaway cases, costing more than $2 million. Numbers have dropped since 1998-2003, when they were consistently between 350 and 400.

Total costs have also fallen, but not by as much. The average cost per case has climbed from less than $6,000 in 2000 to around $14,500 in 2007.

The impact on individual ship owners was likely to be greater, given rising deductibles and the non-reporting of small and quickly solved cases.

During the 1998-2007 period, South Africa topped the list of countries in which UK Club stowaway cases arose, with 190. Next came the Ivory Coast (169), followed by Senegal (165), Argentina (106) and the US (105). Between 50 and 80 cases arose in Italy, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Spain and Gabon.

Costs varied considerably between countries. The 128 cases in the US and Canada cost more than $2 million, while the 190 from South Africa cost $1.68 million.

The 30 Brazilian cases cost an average of around $47,000 each, the North American about $15,000, the South African around $9,000 and the German and Ivory Coast cases close to $6,000 each.

The main regions for stowing away are China and west and east Africa, with most individuals hoping to reach North America and northern Europe.

The Asia-Pacific region poses its own challenges with the illegal trafficking of humans. Despite official efforts, the tide of illegal immigrants to the US and Europe from Asia, particularly China, continues to cause concern. Shippers, slot charterers and some terminal personnel sometimes collude in such crime.

Ro-ro and multi-cargo vessels have proved the most popular vehicles for stowaways over the ten-year period, accounting for 31% of cases. Bulk carriers accounted for 23%, and containerships and general cargo vessels for 16% each.

The UK Club cases involving container vessels varied between 40 and 58 annually for 1998-2004. Over the subsequent three-year periods there were just 61 – a possible consequence of the International Ship & Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code coming into force.

NYK had also experienced a marked downturn in the number of stowaway cases over the last decade, particularly in containerships. Close co-operation between NYK and its terminal operators during incidents had certainly proved worthwhile.

The problem for shipping companies is that a stowaway discovered after the ship has left port becomes the shipping company’s responsibility. This means that the errant freeloader gets free board and lodgings for the duration of the voyage or until the ship calls at a port that accepts stowaways for repatriation – again at the shipping company’s expense.

According to Dick Young, marine manager of Unicorn Shipping, not all ports in the world accept stowaways for repatriation. If the ship calls at such a port, the stowaway must be confined on board, and his presence confirmed when the ship sails.

In Durban and Cape Town, a number of shipping companies routinely call a dog-squad aboard in order to detect stowaways prior to the vessel leaving port. A dog handler with one such company reports that many desperate stowaways have been discovered in the most unlikely hiding places, and, had they not been found, may well not have survived the voyage.

Peter Lau observed: “The stowaway problem is never going to go away. Individuals seeking a better life will always find ways to get aboard ships, and those making money from the trafficking of people will always manage to conceal their ‘cargo’ and ship it without detection.

He added that the container trade offers a tempting pipeline for smugglers that can only be tackled through close co-operation between terminals and ship owners. Cargo may be loaded into a box a thousand miles from a port and remain unseen until unloaded from that same box on the other side of the world. The security challenge thus starts from the moment a container booking is received.

“If a security culture is pursued vigorously from the booking desk to the floodlit deck of the ship, potential stowaways and smugglers will never have it easy,” concluded Lau