International Maritime Bureau statistics indicate that maritime crime off the coast of West Africa is trending toward an escalation in violence. These statistics show that the number of casualties (wounded and killed) in the first 9 months of 2014 is significantly higher than the total number for all of 2013. A recent Oceans Beyond Piracy study found that in 2013 over 1,200 seafarers faced criminals who succeeded in boarding vessels in West Africa and nearly 300 of these seafarers were held hostage.
It is against these worrying factors that Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) held a panel discussion on the effects of West African piracy and maritime crime on seafarers in London on 23 September. The panel discussed the complex models of West African piracy and the ways in which flag States, seafarer Nations and advocacy groups are addressing the problem. Panelists included Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent of OBP, Mr. Pottengal Mukundan of the IMB, Mr. Douglas Stevenson of Seamen's Church lnstitute, Mr. Peter Swift of Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program and Mr. Tim Hart of Control Risks.
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, as the IMB estimates that nearly two-thirds of such attacks go unreported.
"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 number of seafarers are facing an increased risk" says Tim Hart.
Unlike off the coast of Somalia, where pirates have been discouraged by navies and private security companies, West African pirates are undeterred by regional navies and more willing to engage with security personnel. Due to the complex models of maritime crime off West Africa, seafarer welfare is often of little concern to the attackers. Furthermore, trends indicate a worrying increase in kidnap-for-ransom cases.
"A common misperception 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," says Peter Swift.
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 the 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.
"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," says Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent.
According to Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the IMB, "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."
The significant increase of lethal violence and kidnapping off the West African coast underscores the importance of seafarer advocacy groups, including the Seamen's Church Institute and Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme, which are constantly identifying the most effective ways to deliver the assistance that they, provide to the victims of these crimes. "We must step in to protect the seas' most valuable resource: the human beings who live and work on ships," says Douglas Stevenson of SCI.
Seafarers concerned by piracy can contact SeafarerHelp, the free 24 hour helpline run by ISWAN.