It will soon be two years since the cargoship “Iceberg I” was hijacked off Somalia with 24 crew members. The ship is watched over by 50 pirates, and some say has been abandoned to its fate. Since March 29 2010, one seafarer has reportedly committed suicide, and there are conflicting reports about the others, including suggestions that their mental health is suffering.
How to put an end to the piracy epidemic which has spawned this longest ‘seajacking’ and other human tragedies, and substantial business losses, was the focus of the latest meeting in London of WISTA-UK, part of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association.
A plain-spoken presentation by George Kiourktsoglou of the University of Greenwich, who is involved in a piracy research project with his colleage Dr. Alec Coutroubis, sparked an intense debate in which some participants called on naval patrols to exercise more force, and others stressed the need for an end to military interference in Somalia.
The status of any negotiations for the release of the Iceberg I, Panama-flagged and said to be under United Arab Emirates ownership, is unclear, and seafarer representatives in India and elsewhere are angry about the seeming abandonment of the victims. In all, it is said that nine Yemenis, six Indians, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese, two Pakistanis and one Filipino are being held.
At the London event, graciously hosted at the headquarters of Lloyd’s Register, Mr. Kiourktsoglou stressed the vast area of sea in which shipping was vulnerable – 2,200 by 1,800 nautical miles, through which passes 50% of global container traffic and 70% of global petroleum traffic. Up to 23,000 vessels sail through the Gulf of Aden annually.
More than 100,000 seafarers are at any given time preparing for, or transiting, the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. Between 2007 and 2010, a total of 3,500 people was held hostage of whom 62 “never made it back.” Average duration of captivity was eight months. One out of every four seafarers held comes from the Philippines – an island nation which has no naval force off east Africa. Ships with flags of nations that had warships in the region had the best record of freedom from attack.
The pirates score an average 14% success rate. One third of the vessels attacked are younger than five years old. Five or six of the ships targeted had only just been completed at Japanese or South Korean yards. New vessels were a popular target for various reasons, including the potential for a larger ransom, and the fact that the crew were sometimes unfamiliar with the ship: “they do not know how to find their way around in case of emergency,” said Mr Kiourktsoglou.
Many older ships, with a freeboard of less than 5 metres, could be characterised as “sitting ducks.” In 2010 the piracy “business” had a turnover of $238m, and it was heading for $400m by 2015. Profit margins were 25-30%. The annual income of a Somali pirate was between $33,000 and $80,000. Lifetime (in the case of piracy, taken to be five years) earnings were said to be between $170,000 and $400,000. This was 65 to 157 times what the average Somali might have to live on. Every day more than 1.35m Somalis rely on aid from the World Food Program, a figure certain to have been swollen by the onset of famine.
Mr. Kiourktsoglou asked rhetorically: what can we do to eradicate a criminal business like piracy? Attack its raison d’etre, which is profit, he answered. He urged, in order to reduce domestic rivalries, that there should be a progressive scaling down of outside military intervention, gradual promotion of grassroots national reconciliation, and help with humanitarian aid, summarised in the phrase “constructive disengagement.” He insisted: “We should never allow the long term view to escape from our radars.” At the same time, “do not give up counter terrorism activities.” Some outside elements were dying to set their feet in Somalia for one reason: training camps. Two weeks ago, a major Canadian firm started oil exploration in adjacent Somaliland and Puntland. “I believe that this part of Africa will become a target for international terrorism. It will act as a magnet for investors, and terrorists.”
He declared: “You cannot attack an idea with tanks, and poverty is an idea. If there is a chance to bring some closure, it will come from Somalia.” The Greenwich University academics are conducting research into the impact of Somali piracy on the shipping business, and potential ways of risk mitigation. They have designed a questionnaire which they urged shipping professionals to complete on a confidential basis, at http://lnkd.in/nzV5eu The results will be used to inform and support an academic paper, with the working title The Opinion of the International Ship-owning Community with regard to Somali Piracy.