Magazine article New Internationalist

In the Firing Line

Magazine article New Internationalist

In the Firing Line

Article excerpt

'It was truly like being born again. We had given up hope and suddenly we were brought back to life.' These were the words of a crew member of the MVIceberjj when released from 33 months of captivity in the hands of pirates off the Somali coast. It was 23 December 2012 - the crew member's birthday - and followed a two-week siege by the local maritime police.

The crew's imprisonment aboard their hijacked ship was as traumatic as their eventual rescue. One of the initial crew of 24 is reported to have killed himself and another is missing - thought to have tried to swim ashore. The rest of the crew were tied up and beaten daily. The chief engineer was singled out for even worse treatment. He had his ear slashed, was kept in solitary confinement for a year and was almost suffocated with plastic bags.

But perhaps the worst torture of all, the hostages say, was periodically seeing international naval patrol vessels approach and then retreat, reluctant to risk lives by intervening.

Meanwhile, the ship's Yemeni, Dubai-based owner - who was rumoured not to have had insurance - had stopped negotiating a ransom with the pirates (if he had ever even started) and abandoned the ship and her crew to their wretched fate.

The crew's hostage ordeal is one of the longest on record. The average captivity for around 600 seafarers held hostage by Somali pirates in 2012 lasted 11 months. During this time, most were subject to abuse and left wondering if, or when, they would get home to their families, many of whom struggle if ship owners stop hostages' pay.

Easy pickings

Piracy - as old a profession as seafaring itself - plagues different oceans in different eras, sometimes receding but never defeated. The Somali piracy of recent years has dropped at the same time as piracy off the West African coast is on the rise. Some five per cent of the world's 1.5 million sailors have fallen victim to pirates since 2008, according to the Oceans Beyond Piracy project.

Piracy detracts from the appeal of a decent wage and seeing the world - the two stock responses a young cadet will offer when asked why they want to sail. Yet even sightseeing is not guaranteed these days. Technological advances and faster turn-around times in port mean seafarers are most likely to see the inside of a portside sailors'' club, during fleeting and infrequent visits.

Skeletal crews on vast ships leave staff overstretched and fatigued - not an effective guard against pirates - while also making for greater social isolation. Staying sane at sea - while less sensational than the threat of piracy - is an ever-present challenge.

Chuck in extreme weather, high rates of accidents and fatalities and the insecurity of contractual employment, as well as the possibility of being locked up in foreign countries for a pollution-causing accident, and you start to see why the piracy of recent years, while alarming, is by no means the only problem facing seafarers; they have long been recognized as a category in need of special protection, especially with the advent of'Flags of Convenience'' (FOC).

Shrugging off the nation-state

Following the 1970s' oil crisis and a subsequent overabundance of ships in the 1980s, ship owners looked to reduce costs by registering their ships under those foreign states that were unencumbered by strict domestic labour laws.

Liberia and Panama were the earliest so-called 'flag' states. They allowed ship owners to take advantage of cheaper labour from Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, such as the Philippines, China, Indonesia and India. Forty years ago, most ships were crewed by nationals of their own flags; today ships usually have foreign flags and mixed-nationality crews. The Iceberg, for example, was owned by a Dubai-based company, flew a Panamanian flag and its crew included Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Yemenis and Ghanaians. There were even two citizens of the new state of South Sudan, whose nation came into being while they were held captive. …

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