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Stowaways activity increases in Port of Durban

12 February 2017
– 5 Minute Read


Our Merchant Shipping Act refers to stowaways as follows: “No person shall go to sea in a ship without the consent of the owner, master, a ship’s officer or some other person entitled to give that consent, or secrete himself for the purpose of going to sea without that consent.”

P& I Associates in Durban has recently advised that stowaway activity in the Port of Durban increased significantly during the last quarter of 2016.

Generally, stowaways use an array of methods to gain access to a vessel in port. These include wearing clothing which blends in with that worn by Port workers, generally accessing the ports overnight, climbing up vessels berthing ropes and gangways, choosing vessels with large crew complements to access in the hopes of “blending in” or paying money to dock workers and stevedores to enable them to gain access.

Once onboard, stowaways often find unusual places to hide while the vessel is in transit. Besides the standard cargo holds and containers which may be used as hiding places, stowaways have been found in a ship’s rudder shaft space, store rooms, cabins, engine room bilges, chain lockers and even in the funnel casing on occasions.

Generally, South African ports are a hot spot for stowaway activity, particularly Durban, as Durban is one of the busiest ports in Africa. Besides the benefit of having a number of vessels calling regularly and then continuing on their journeys worldwide, which increases a stowaway’s “options”, it is also easier for a stowaway to avoid detection in Durban, purely due to the large number of people who work in and pass through the busy port.

The presence of stowaways may be discovered while the ship is sailing from a foreign port to a South African port, while the ship is sailing between two South African ports or while the ship is in a South African port. In terms of standard procedure and IMO guidelines, on the finding of stowaways, a ship notifies her owners who will advise their local P&I Club correspondents who will attend on board the vessel. A local representative of the South African Department of Home Affairs will also attend on board. Once the stowaways are removed from the vessel, they are usually detained in a holding facility at the port, and the South African Department of Home Affairs will then investigate the matter.

In February 2016, the Director General of the Department of Home Affairs issued a policy guideline under the Immigration Act saying that any person found unlawfully gaining access to a ship is automatically deemed to be a stowaway unless evidence to the contrary is provided (for example, showing that the person is a South African citizen, or a foreigner who lives in South Africa legally and is registered with the Department of Home Affairs, or that they boarded the ship in a South African port as a result of poor harbour security) in which case they may be treated as a “trespasser” (not a “stowaway”) and handed to the local authorities for prosecution under local law.

The significance of this guideline is that the responsibility for the costs of dealing with and repatriating stowaways rests with the vessel owners, whereas trespassers are not the responsibility of the ship owner. Accordingly, vessel owners are obliged to ensure that only authorised persons gain access to the vessel as far as possible.

While some sympathy may be appropriate for those stowaways who are desperate and impoverished and seeking a better quality of life elsewhere, Mr Michael Heads, the Managing Director of P&I Associates, Durban comments that there is a worrying breed of stowaway, who he refers to as “professional stowaways.” According to Mr Heads, these professionals work in syndicates and share information. Mr Heads comments that professional stowaways are well informed and knowledgeable about which countries will assist with the resolution of stowaway cases and which countries will protect stowaways. They also know their rights and where and how to create scenes to further their goal, which is of course a monetary payment from the ship owner in return for their departing to their home country quickly and quietly. Professional stowaways are often repeat offenders.

The International Ship and Port Facility Code [ISPS] includes special measures to enhance maritime security. South Africa implemented this code through Merchant Shipping Regulations 2004. Our ports have implemented additional security measures such as access controls, cameras and security guards to make our ports more secure and which should have had the effect of decreasing stowaway activity. This, however, has not been proven to be the case. In the circumstances, and to avoid delays and costs occasioned by stowaways on board a vessel, vessel owners are encouraged to take whatever reasonable steps are necessary to ensure stowaways cannot access their ship in port.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Tribune.