Stowaway tragedy in Tilbury

The Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic, 1965, as amended, (The FAL Convention), define stowaway as “A person who is secreted on a ship, or in cargo which is subsequently loaded on the ship, without the consent of the shipowner or the master or any other responsible person and who is detected on board the ship after it has departed from a port, or in the cargo while unloading it in the port of arrival, and is reported as a stowaway by the master to the appropriate authorities”.

Unnoticed by the captain, crew, port officials and customs authorities, stowaways may gain access to a ship with or without the assistance of port personnel. Once on board the ship, stowaways hide in empty containers, cargo holds, tanks, tunnels, behind false panels, stores, accommodation areas, engine rooms, void spaces, cranes and chain lockers.

The presence of stowaways on board ships may bring serious consequences for ships and, by extension, to the shipping industry as a whole; the ship could be delayed in port; the repatriation of stowaways can be a very complex and costly procedure involving masters, shipowners, port authorities and agents, and the life of stowaways could be endangered as they may spent several days hidden, with the risk of suffocation and without any food or water. And that was the fate of the 35 stoways discovered in a container in the Port of Tilbury in the United Kingdom last week.

The Port of Tilbury is reputed to be London’s major port, providing fast, modern distribution services for the benefit of the south east of England and beyond. It is a dynamic and diverse port handling the full range of cargoes with specialist expertise in the handling of paper and forest products, containers, RoRo, grain and bulk commodities and construction and building materials.

Tilbury’s strategic location makes it the natural point for distribution with 18 million people living within 75 miles. Serving the UK’s market, the port offers customers excellent transport links to and from the capital and across the South East where over 50% of the population live and work.

The discovery of 35 Afghani Sikhs in a container in the port sent shockwaves through the media globally and especially in Britain.

Tragedy had struck in the last leg of the illegal migrants’ route in the early hours of Saturday morning. A route that terminated with a passage from Zeebrugge to Tilbury in the airless steel container that threatened to become a cold and dark coffin for all of its occupants. With ages ranging from 1 to 72, the families brought their ordeal to an end by drawing the attention of dock workers to their plight with a frenzied banging and screaming from within, sadly not before one of their number, 40 year-old Meet Singh Kapoor, had died in his family’s arms – an end he tragically shared with the 58 Chinese migrants who succumbed to a similar fate in when they died in a truck from Zeebrugge to Dover some 14 years ago.

Several questions remain unanswered as a result of the tragic incidence. How could a container, laden with human cargo – in these days of heightened security measures borne out of concerted implementation of the International Ships & Ports Facility Security Code (ISPS) Code – have so effortlessly traversed countries and continents undetected? Who owned the box? How did the migrants get inside?

The two most known forms of organized immigration crimes are human trafficking and people smuggling. In the former, victims are coerced and transported under duress into a life of prostitution or enforced servitude – effectively modern-day slavery.

In the latter, an example of which we saw in Tilbury, victims pay large sums of money to criminal gangs who arrange for their transport to countries where they expect to embark on new and better lives or generate income to support families left behind – desperate people who will go to great lengths, including risking their lives, to make a better life for themselves and their families.

The sad fact is that as long as there are desperate and vulnerable people, there will be ruthless criminals waiting to exploit them; parting them from their life’s savings, transporting them like cattle with no concern for their welfare, especially once their profits have been realised; normally in advance.

A container is no place for human cargo; almost airtight, subject to extremes of heat and cold and impossible to escape from when locked from the outside without help, it is little wonder that this incident ended in tragedy and surprising that it wasn’t an even more tragic end, just like the Chinese migrants whose hope for a better life ended with the sad repatriation of their bodies to China back in 2000.

The really worrying aspect of this latest incident, according to analysts, is the potential for this to be the start of a new trend, as organized criminals seek to exploit destination ports less used to the daily ‘cat and mouse’ games played out at the Channel ports, where highly skilled border officials in the UK and France conduct technology-enabled, intelligence-led operations to stem the constant flow of illegal migrants.

Targeting new destinations and using new modes of transport, such as shipping containers, could be the criminals’ latest attempt to seize the initiative and combat increasingly efficient border controls.

The Tilbury tragedy therefore has become a wake-up call for the port and shipping community.

Back home in Nigeria, there are effective measures put in place to ensure the failure of stoaway adventurists. For one, access to the terminals and quay aprons is highly restricted. Empty containers brought into the port by truck must remain open until they are offloaded even as more stringent measures to deter a potential stowaway are implemented. The emerging challenge for the maritime industry, ports and border officials is to reduce the probability of these potential tragedies by engaging in increasingly innovative technologies, intelligence-led operations and cooperation across national boundaries to minimise tragic outcomes.

This is not an easy task, but a very important one.

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