It may have been a while since you went to the office, but cast your mind back to your daily workday pre-COVID-19. You commute into the office, have a coffee, chat with your colleagues, work at your desk, go to meetings. How does that make you feel?
Now, imagine that throughout the day, at any time, someone could burst in on you with a machine gun to rob, kidnap or kill. You must always be on high alert, prepared to take cover to try to save yourself and your colleagues, hiding for hours as the gunmen roam your office. Visualize it – even the idea is likely to get your heart rate up. Imagine what it would be like living that way, what it would do to you, how it would affect your family?
Living under threat
This is not what we would call a safe and humane working environment. Yet this is the reality today for hundreds of thousands of seafarers on vessels that transit or enter the Gulf of Guinea, and hundreds of seafarers have already suffered piracy attacks or been kidnapped and are now living with the trauma. Not to mention those who have paid with their lives.
The threat is real and persistent. Gulf of Guinea piracy has evolved from near-shore robbery to open sea piracy and the violent kidnapping of crew members for ransom. In 2020, 136 seafarers were abducted at gunpoint, held for weeks and months, suffering serious injury to their physical and mental wellbeing. This year, we are seeing an even steeper increase in the frequency and ruthlessness of the attacks unleashed on shipping.
Law enforcement desperately needed
It is time that this hidden humanitarian tragedy is brought into the open and gets the attention it deserves. The pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have high levels of resolve, weaponry and fighting skills. Vessels that go into the area adhere to best practices, keeping lookouts, speeding up, mounting fire hoses for protection and training to handle an attack. Some also take on armed guards. But even that isn’t stopping the pirates, who won’t hesitate to engage in full-on firefights.
To keep seafarers safe and discourage attacks, the ships and crews working in the Gulf of Guinea need a naval presence that actively enforces International Maritime Law with robust mandates. What naval presence there is today, is not primarily focused on piracy and is not coordinated. Law enforcement operations can be further optimised through shared awareness and deconfliction of naval activities as successfully seen in fighting Somali piracy.
To date, only a very few countries have actively engaged in enforcement of International Maritime Law. We are grateful to the states that have committed naval vessels to the area, and to those regional countries who have increased law enforcement at sea, but much more is needed to ensure safe passage for ships and seafarers.
As so often is the case with piracy, problems and conditions on land are behind the issue. For a long-term resolution, there is also a need for collaboration with the governments in the area to address the criminals’ bases, sources of finance and corruption as well as criminal justice system support.
Seafarers are the unsung heroes of global trade, making our everyday life possible. It hardly crosses our mind when we shop for our weekly groceries, or click to order clothes and gifts, that we rely on seafarers to be able to do this. At least 90% of the goods you buy have travelled by sea and arrive at your door thanks to seafarers.
Amid the public health crisis and large-scale government restrictions on people’s movements, we have seen seafarers stuck at sea due to crew change prohibitions. Coupled with the threat of piracy, this results in immense wellbeing issues and consequences, both for the seafarers at risk and for those of us who rely on fully functional marine trade. Trade that is also vital to the growth and prosperity of the African nations around the Gulf of Guinea.
The hard work of seafarers around the world keeps us all fed and clothed, brings vaccines and PPE, machinery, and computers. They should not have to go to work fearing for their lives.