Stowaways and Covid-19

Valérie Baert-Marquard, Assistant Vice President, Claims at Skuld, has written on the situations that can arise if stowaways are discovered on board during the current pandemic.

Baert-Marquard noted that stowaways found on board were an extra burden on the crew and, despite many attempts to find an international solution, shipowners were often left alone providing for the stowaway and finding ways of repatriation. Covid-19 had rendered the shipowners’ and crews’ task to deal with stowaway cases even harder.

People who flee from their country because of persecution were easier to handle for the countries that had ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol.

For people fleeing from their country for economic or social reasons, the situation is more complex.

Baert-Marquard said that Skuld had seen a rise in young people risking their lives to embark on dangerous journeys after having heard stories from repatriated stowaways who show off new clothes and sometimes, on top of it, financial gain. “The result is an alarming trend for stowaways to increase pressure on shipowners to obtain money against stowaways’ cooperation”, Baert-Marquard wrote.

Although there was a slight reduction of stowaway activities in 2020, there was once again an upward trend in 2021. This, in combination with disembarkation becoming even more difficult than before, had rendered stowaways repatriation more problematic and costly.

The reason for the decrease in 2020 could have been the result of control and hygiene measures applied both at the ports and on board the vessels during the pandemic, accompanied by fear of becoming infected, which discouraged people from becoming stowaways, said Baert-Marquard. Since the beginning of 2021 there had been an upsurge where Skuld had faced several instances involving a higher number of stowaways hiding on board, with in cases up to six stowaways hidden in a single vessel’s rudder trunk.

The added challenge for shipowners was the disembarkation of a stowaway. This increased the burden of crews who may already be exhausted, some of them on board for more months than intended, and without knowing if and when their own repatriation will be possible.

A successful disembarkation generally depended on the goodwill of the authorities where the vessel is calling, the goodwill of the stowaways’ embassy, and the goodwill of the stowaway.

There were challenges of identifying the stowaways, most often identity documents are missing. Some embassies were difficult to relate to in these issues, even imposing unnecessary extra costs or duties on the shipowner before delivering a laissez-passer.

Some countries simply refused to have stowaways disembarked on their soil, even with the guarantee of a repatriation arranged and paid by shipowners,. This was despite the Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic agreement of 1965, which most countries had ratified.

It might be difficult to find an airline that will agree to have stowaways on board.

With countries closing their borders due to the pandemic, an extra burden fell on shipowners and their crew. From March last year several countries closed their borders completely. The application of the Conventions/Resolution in force were secondary. “When hygiene barriers were in place, we could sense more reluctance from the authorities to accept disembarkation of stowaways”, said Baert-Marquard.

Time was needed to verify that the stowaway was not infected with Covid-19, and this was rarely compatible with a modern vessel’s typically tight schedule. Coordinating an acceptable repatriation schedule was difficult due to the massive reduction in available international transport. Even if disembarkation was achieved, the stowaways were then stuck in the country of disembarkation while waiting for the borders to reopen. Accommodation and food were added to the total costs until reopening of the borders, which in certain cases took up to four months.

Extra work was required to find transport connections and countries willing to have transit through their territory. “This is always a challenge during normal times but with Covid-19 restrictions, it has sometimes been impossible to find the right connection. Flight cancellations and border closings would happen overnight, creating delays and extra obstacles to deal with”, said Baert-Marquard.

Previously if a stowaway was discovered shortly after vessel departure and close to the port in which they came onboard, he or she could easily be transported back to the country of origin. However, with Covid-19, costs have at least doubled.

“Due to borders closing and tighter rules regarding the flow of people between countries as well as the reluctance to be in physical contact with a foreigner, our correspondents have in some instances solved such situations by involving two launches, one from each country, meeting in the middle of the sea. Being regarded as the only solution, the launch owners set their prices high”, noted Baert-Marquard.

Generally, a stowaway is confined in one cabin on board and should be allowed to get fresh air once or twice a day, depending on his/her behaviour. When a stowaway is spotted on board a common question of the crew is, what if the stowaway is infected with Covid-19? Following the Covid-19 protocol, any space where the stowaway has been and any object touched, must be disinfected.

Communication with the stowaway normally is not easy or can even be impossible, as they are rarely fluent in English or the national languages of crew members. Some stowaways became highly frustrated when the situation remained unsolved, with vessel calling at several ports without a clear prospect of a possible disembarkation.

Shipowners had experienced cabin damage due to the long waiting time, resulting in inappropriate behaviour of the stowaways, where frustration resulted in violence and aggression. This added to the crew’s stress.

Skuld said that it would like to add that some embassies/consulates had been very helpful in providing additional assistance. “As an example, and although prevented from going on board, they have accepted to conduct the interview with the stowaways by phone. This has helped save time and ease the procedure to issue the laissez-passer in many cases”, said Baert-Marquard.