Caring for the Victims of Piracy

Apr 16, 2009

In response to recent, high-profile incidents of piracy off the coast of the East African nation of Somalia, the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), an ecumenical agency affiliated with the Episcopal Church, launches new efforts to increase awareness of the effects of piracy on its mariner victims post-attack. These efforts include the submission of a resolution to the International Maritime Organization earlier this month, a church-relations campaign, and the draft of an open letter to international governments and the maritime industry.

“SCI is concerned that the effects of pirate attacks on seafarer victims and their families are not well understood and that few resources exist to care for piracy victims,” said Douglas B. Stevenson, Director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights, SCI’s legal advocacy arm. Stevenson believes that the victims of piracy, international seafarers and their families, need extraordinary support and care following hijackings.

In 2008, SCI helped draft a resolution with the International Christian Maritime Association in response to the threat of piracy on merchant shipping vessels. At the beginning of April, this resolution was submitted to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations’ specialized agency responsible for improving maritime safety.

“We are asking first for a study of the effects of piracy on seafarer victims. This cannot be accomplished without the active participation of ship operators,” said Stevenson. The second proposal is for the IMO to adopt guidelines (based on the results of this study) on how to care for seafarer victims of piracy, and the third initiative is to set up a piracy victims resource center.

Recently, pirate attacks have increased in the waters off the coast of Somalia largely because of failed local government attempts to curtail it. In 2008, at least 293 pirate attacks occurred worldwide; 49 vessels were hijacked, 46 other vessels were fired upon, 889 seafarers were taken hostage, 32 seafarers were injured, 11 seafarers were killed, and 21 seafarers missing and presumed dead. 111 of the 2008 pirate attacks occurred off the coast of Somalia. As of mid-April 2009, pirates held 16 ships with approximately 250 seafarers captive.

In an open letter to government and industry, Stevenson writes, “Merchant mariners’ lives and liberties are being threatened by pirates from Somalia and other parts of the world. He writes, “While much needed work has been devoted to preventing and suppressing acts of piracy as well as bringing pirates to justice, more attention must be given to caring for piracy’s mariner victims.”

In addition to working toward improving national and international law and practices protecting mariners, SCI also cares for the men and women working as merchant mariners through one-on-one contact. In the heart of Port Newark, SCI maintains an International Seafarers’ Center (currently undergoing major expansion construction) where chaplains, like the Rev. Megan Sanders, greet and assist seafarers arriving to North America’s second largest port. Recently, Sanders spoke with a seafarer about the threat of piracy. She said, “He [the seafarer] told me that the scariest thing is that the attacks happen so fast with so little time to react.” Sanders said that the seafarer must always be able to respond in the blink of an eye—without time to call home or grab belongings from his cabin. “And,” she adds, “in the midst of this tremendous stress, they have everything else going on like we do—births and deaths at home, children growing up, and bills to pay.”

“The seafarer is set apart from those of us who can take care of our own needs in our own time. They are at the mercy of the uncontrollable circumstances of life at sea,” said Sanders.

The Rev. David M. Rider, President and Executive Director of SCI, says that the mission of the Institute is to help the seafarer live with dignity. “We are charged with caring for the world’s 1.2 million merchant mariners in body, mind, and spirit,” says Rider. “SCI is speaking out on behalf of mariners to curtail the threat of piracy. We also want to support those who work so diligently in doing the work that they do.”

Rider is determined to educate people on piracy and help people reach out in support of its victims. As part of this campaign, he is scheduled to speak at several churches in the tri-state area, including Trinity Church, Princeton, NJ on April 19 and St. Bart’s in Manhattan on May 3. He, Douglas Stevenson, and other members of SCI’s staff are available for similar presentations. Rider said, “We are here to connect those at sea with those ashore, offering people information and giving them an opportunity to respond.” SCI has made available on its website an FAQ sheet on piracy and the Institute’s efforts.

There are several ways to speak up on behalf of seafarers’ protection and rights, according to Rider. In addition to spreading the news about the scourge of piracy, SCI has drafted “An Open Letter to Governments, International Organizations, and the Maritime Industry” available here The letter, able to be signed online, will remain available to receive names until Friday, May 22, 2009. It urges action to be taken toward protecting and caring for seafarers who are victims of piracy. “By signing this letter, people join with SCI in our mission to protect the seafarer. It is a way to speak out against piracy and help us advocate for the human victims of this crime.”