With conflict and bloodshed in the Middle East, Ukraine and other parts of the world dominating international attention, one issue has dropped off the headlines – the human cost of piracy and maritime crime. This applies especially to the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa where piracy is escalating. Although the actual number of attacks on vessels may not be exceptionally high, the trauma suffered by seafarers affected by violence is having a devastating impact on them and their families.
Experts on maritime safety and the welfare of seafarers gathered in London this week to explore ways to tackle piracy-related violence off the coast of West Africa. The event was co-hosted by a private foundation, Oceans Beyond Piracy, and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).
Figures from the IMB show that the number of casualties, wounded and killed, in the first 9 months of 2014, is significantly higher than the total for the whole of 2013. A recent Oceans Beyond Piracy study found that in 2013, more than 1,200 seafarers faced criminals who succeeded in boarding vessels in West Africa and nearly 300 were held hostage.
The panel emphasized the importance of consistent reporting of crimes in understanding the degree to which seafarers off the coast of West Africa undergo violence or distress. The IMB estimates that nearly two-thirds of such attacks go unreported.
Tim Hart from Control Risks outlined the scale and growth of piracy in West Africa, “Piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea is not a new issue but an increase in the operational range of pirate groups means a greater range of seafarers are facing an increased risk.” Unlike off the coast of Somalia, where pirates have been discouraged by navies and private security companies, West African pirates are undetected by regional navies and more willing to engage with security personnel. Due to the complex model of maritime crime off West Africa, seafarer welfare is of little concern to the attackers. Furthermore, trends indicate a worrying increase in kidnap-for-ransom cases.
According to Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the International Maritime Bureau, “The information provided for crimes off Somalia helped to give us a more complete picture of the maritime crime problem and has assisted companies and states to identify policies that best support seafarers. We expect this will be the case with West Africa as well.”
In order to better understand the impact of the violence, major flag states, including Liberia, the Marshall Islands, St. Kitts, and Panama, have agreed to provide detailed but anonymous information to be compiled by IMB. This is consistent with the information provided by these same flag states in the Declaration Condemning Violence Against Seafarers related to acts of Somali piracy. Additionally, this effort will now be supported by the major seafaring nations, whose seafarers are disproportionately affected.
Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent welcomed this support. “We commend and thank these states for taking action to improve the safety of seafarers and see this as a first step towards mobilizing a more effective response to these crimes and hope that others will join them in the near future.”
The significant increase in lethal violence and kidnapping off the West Africa coast underscores the importance of seafarer advocacy groups, including the Seamen’s Church Institute and Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program, which are constantly identifying the most effective ways to deliver assistance to these victims. Douglas Stevenson of the Seamen’s Church Institute urged, “We must step in to protect the seas’ most valuable resource: the human beings who live and work on ships.”
Peter Swift, of the Maritime Humanitarian Response Program, said: “A common misconception is that piracy and other violent crimes at sea represent victimless crime. In reality, however, many seafarers suffer from physical or psychological abuse, and the impact on them can be severe and long-lasting as well as on their families.”
Commercial vessels carry cargo worth up to 10 million dollars or more making piracy attractive. The lack of security means that established ship-owners are making a conscious decision not to trade in West Africa. The risk now is that only rogue owners are likely to operate in the region, and for them the welfare of seafarers will be low on their list of priorities. As consumers, we are urged to support efforts to protect seafarers who place their lives in danger to help deliver fuel and essential goods we take for granted.