The age of the ‘professional stowaway’


Traditionally the goal of the stowaway is to board a ship undetected to gain free passage from one part of the world to another. But evidence from South Africa suggests the emergence of a new class of stowaway with quite different objectives.

The advent of the ‘professional stowaway’ has been made possible, in part, by the hard-line approach the South African authorities are taking toward shipping companies that find unauthorised personnel aboard their vessels.

The discovery of a stowaway is always bad news for a ship operator but good cooperation with port authorities and local officials usually means that issues can be resolved fairly quickly.

What has happened in South Africa is that the prospects of a swift resolution have become increasingly remote while the potential costs to a shipping company have spiralled.

To understand the problem it is necessary to go back to 2014 when there was a change in the way authorities responded when stowaways were reported. Ship operators visiting Durban and Cape Town ship began to understand there was a crucial difference between an interloper being designated as a ‘stowaway’ rather than a ‘trespasser’.

Anyone who boarded a vessel while it was in port would be treated as a ‘trespasser’ and would be removed from the ship to face what, in all likelihood, would be a judicial ‘slap on the wrist’.  There was, however, one massive proviso. The individual in question had to be shown to be – beyond doubt – a South African citizen or at least a person with a legal right to be in South Africa.

The problems for ship operators began when, as was often the case, the individuals could not be shown to be South African. In those cases the authorities no longer regard the unauthorised individuals as trespassers. Instead they were ‘stowaways’, a categorisation that could have serious consequences for the shipping company on whose vessel they were found.

As ‘stowaways’ individuals would only be allowed to disembark once the shipping company had arrangements in place to have them repatriated within 24 hours.

As often as not that would mean, in addition to providing tickets for a flight ‘home’, the company would need to pay for a security escort, usually of two people, to see them to the airport departure gate.

If the stowaway was, in the language of custodial care, ‘non-compliant’ there would be no guarantee that the airline would let them board the flight.

Depending on how ‘badass’ an individual was prepared to be, flights could be missed, there could be extended stays in custody, new flight bookings would need to be made and the whole process would be at the expense of the shipping company whose vessel was boarded.

In these circumstances, a conservative estimate for the cost of resolving a stowaway case in South Africa is around $10,000 but it can be much, much higher.

The logic of the authorities’ position seems to be is that without documents to prove that an individual has been in South Africa legally they can be assumed to have smuggled themselves aboard the vessel before it entered the country’s waters.

Of course, it can be argued that an absence of documents doesn’t mean an unauthorised individual hasn’t boarded the vessel in South Africa. Experience has shown, however, that the standard of proof to back such a claim needs to be very high indeed.

P&I Clubs and marine professionals have issued a string of warnings to ship operators about the situation in South Africa.

Michael Heads, managing director of South Africa-based P&I Associates (Pty) Ltd, wrote in a recent paper: “Our interviews with stowaways and from our observations in and around South African ports is that there is an organised network in operation which helps stowaways gain access to ports and then on board ships.”

He uses the term ‘professional stowaway’ to describe gangs or individuals who board vessels not for free passage out of South Africa but rather as a means to extract money from ship operators.

Knowing the attitude of the authorities and the consequences for ship operators the professionals make sure their documents are discarded before they board a ship – if they had any in the first place. “It is the strategy of the professional stowaway and part of their objective in stowing away to demand money from the ship owner in order [that they leave] quickly and quietly.”

Many stowaways, of course, are passive and amenable. Some may even be the ‘desperate men fleeing desperate circumstances’ that do occasionally make headlines.

In the case of South Africa, many of those who smuggle themselves aboard visiting ships are from Tanzania. As often as not they are perfectly pleased to be repatriated. The sting for the ship-owner is that it will be at the owner’s, or their P&I Club’s, expense.

In the past ten years South Africa has seen the highest number of migrants of any country in the region and, until the Syrian crisis broke on Europe, in the world.  It is a magnet for economic migrants but all too often, once they arrive, they find that jobs are scarce.

Against this background South Africa has been toughening its migration laws, laws that on paper are amongst the most liberal in the world. The hard-line approach being taken with shipping companies, which first became apparent in 2014, is unlikely to be relaxed.

Observers say that another factor – an unintended consequence of the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code – could be at work.

One of the Code’s demands is that ports have systems in place to prevent stowaways. It is possible that South Africa port authorities, sensitive to how well they are perceived to be complying with ISPS rules, are reluctant to admit their security procedures have been breached.

If they can claim it is unclear where a stowaway boarded a vessel why should they shoulder the responsibility and open their ISPS compliance record to scrutiny?

The best advice for ship operators is that they should ensure that their vessels are secure while they are in port. Preventing stowaways boarding a ship is likely to prove easier them getting them off. The basic steps are obvious. A watch should be maintained around the clock. No one should be allowed on board without a port permit and ISPS clearance.

There is also a strong case for employing private security guards to patrol the quay-side of the ship and provide access control at the bottom of the gangway, shore-side. And, given the South African authorities approach, strategically placed CCTV cameras could also help ship operators prove exactly where and when a stowaway boarded.

If security is tight at the gangway and mooring ropes the problem of stowaways and the risks it brings will largely be resolved.


This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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