Helping Seafarers Confront West African Piracy

Dec 11, 2012

by the Rev. David M. Rider, President & Executive Director

While the Seamen’s Church Institute’s (SCI) Center for Seafarers’ Rights (CSR) has been studying the impact of piracy on seafarers around the world for twenty years, our recent efforts have focused on the unique challenges of long-duration hostage situations off the coast of Somalia, sometimes lasting six to nine months and often amid squalid living conditions. Friends of SCI know we recently published a paper called The Psychological Impact of Piracy on Seafarers that summarizes our clinical interviews with seafarers regarding high-risk transits and post-captivity medical treatment.

While the failed state of Somalia virtually guarantees continued ship hijackings, the maritime world increasingly must cope with a different risk and piracy “business model” occurring around the Gulf of Guinea and Nigeria. This week, I represented SCI at an international meeting sponsored by Oceans Beyond Piracy that included fifteen leaders—ranging from ship owners, oil producers, government officials, law enforcement and humanitarian groups—to discuss the unique challenges of West African piracy.

Reports from East African (Somali) piracy hijackings typically describe hostage situations lasting for long periods of time to negotiate ransom. One rarely hears about attempts to monetize the ship’s cargo. West African pirates, however, often target oil tankers—both to seek ransom and to discharge the liquid cargo for black-market sale. While successful capture may take days instead of months, pirates reportedly engage in more gratuitous violence while forcing crews to cooperate in vessel movement and product discharge against their will.

While government structures are stronger in West Africa compared to East Africa, alleged government and commercial corruption provide intelligence to pirates while inadequate counter-piracy laws complicate prosecution. Insufficient regional cooperation among Nigeria, Togo and Benin thwart interdiction of pirates in multi-jurisdictional waters. Since hijackings take place both within national territorial waters and beyond, the legal distinction between armed robbery and piracy complicates prosecution, too. West African piracy more resembles transnational organized crime with more sophisticated vessels and weapons compared to that of East Africa.

From SCI’s perspective on seafarer welfare and our recent clinical study, I raised questions for discussion regarding the human cost and how seafarers cope with different risks between East and West Africa. Are short-term—but potentially more violent—crimes more or less traumatic than long-duration sieges sometimes lasting a year? How do we move beyond anecdote to more systematically debrief and triage seafarers after short- or long-term captivity, diagnosing trauma while hopeful for seafarer resilience? Whether short- or long-duration, who decides when crews get back underway or disembark the ship for treatment or repatriation? How do seafarers—often reticent to express pain or seek treatment—get the medical and psychological treatment they need without fear of stigma or discrimination when seeking a return to work? Our interdisciplinary meeting engaged these issues, agreeing that we need more coordinated capture of medical information, yet lamented the huge challenges of cooperation across myriad ship owners, flag states and nationalities.

Our CSR legal and psychological team remains passionate about gathering data, individual seafarer witness and international advocacy to advance these medical and psychological concerns regarding the proper care of seafarers. Amid tales of mock execution, torture, isolation and sexual assault, we want to better understand how healing and resilience overcome suffering for hostages and their families.

Going forward, CSR Director Douglas Stevenson, clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Garfinkle and I will continue to join international private/public sector meetings, provide consultation when requested and hear the stories of seafarers who wish to contact us in person, by phone, email and Skype. For our contact information, check the Piracy Study section of this website.

To view SCI video interviews with seafarer hostage survivors, click here.