In recent months there has been a dramatic increase in the number of stowaway incidents involving the use of containers, culminating recently in the discovery of 58 dead stowaways in a container at the port of Dover, United Kingdom.
Several Clubs within the International Group have dealt with cases involving Chinese stowaways in particular being placed on board container ships in sealed containers at the port of Hong Kong, destined for North American ports. This recent development has attracted the attention of the United States Coast Guard, the U.S. immigration authorities and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, all of whom are putting considerable pressure on carriers to demonstrate that they are dealing with the problem.
In view of this increased activity, the following guidelines are recommended for all container operators:
Prior to Terminal
Carriers are recommended to make further enquiries and take extra precautions at the time shipments are booked. Particular attention should be paid to the following:
Trade patterns which have been the subject of past problems.
Previously unknown shippers; company searches may be appropriate.
New trading areas.
Requests for empty containers to be delivered to insecure areas.
Loaded containers collected from insecure areas.
Open-top containers, which should be inspected prior to acceptance.
Shipments in reefer containers set at relatively high temperatures.
At Terminal (prior to loading)
In appropriate areas cooperation should be sought from local immigration authorities; their experience may be an essential asset.
Carriers should emphasize to terminal operators the need for dialogue and cooperation in combating the ease with which stowaways are able to access containers due for shipment.
Any containers presented for loading with no seals, or faulty or tampered seals, should be opened and checked before being re-sealed.
All reefer containers with settings above, say, 10 degrees centigrade should be opened and checked for stowaways.
All open-top containers should be inspected and particular attention should be given to any containers with signs of recent repair, repainting, etc.
Particular attention should be paid to containers that arrive in the terminal late, after the cut-off period or shortly before loading commences. This practice might be a tactic to diminish opportunities for detection and would also reduce stowaways' length of confinement in the container.
Consider the deployment of CO2 detectors, heat detectors, sniffer dogs and/or heartbeat detectors. Methods of detection will vary from terminal to terminal. Agreement should be sought with each operator.
Particular attention should be paid to any containers received from outside locations and especially from insecure, uncontrolled areas.
Containers for which obvious weight discrepancies exist should be identified and, if necessary, searched.
On container ships, searches of empty spaces and deck vigilance prior to departure is necessary - as with all other types of vessels.
When appropriate, consider building time into the vessel's schedule to enable this to take place.
Whenever possible, it may be prudent to have men in the hatch when hatch covers are replaced as stowaways have been known to conceal themselves in the hatch cover structure when stowed ashore.
Routine crew security and safety tours of the vessel should be undertaken and noted regularly in the vessel deck log.
Steps to be taken after a stowaway has been detected
On discovering stowaways within containers, review the stow position and accessibility, inform vessel operations of the known facts, with container number, stow position and loading port, seeking directions.
Urgent attempts must be made to communicate with the stowaways: consider using tape recorded messages (in various languages).
Assess the situation. How many stowaways? What nationality? Try to determine their health. Do they present a threat to the vessel and crew? Do they require food and water? Consider drilling holes in the container to provide these, if feasible. If the stowaways can be released from the container, are there sufficient crew to safely supervise them in a secure area?
Take into consideration the safety of the ship and crew, as well as the stowaways. Should the vessel divert? Factors to be considered will include the time since departure from loading port, estimated time of arrival at destination, time to the nearest suitable port if the ship diverts, the suitability of that port to cater for the vessel and provide fast access to the container.
Liaise closely with owners'/carriers' P&I Club.
The Master should not be expected to carry the entire burden.
Each case must be reviewed on its own merits and decisions taken jointly in consultation with the owners'/carriers' P&I Club.
No guidelines issued in advance can cover all situations. However, it is hoped that the foregoing recommendations will serve to assist in the prompt resolution of the majority of cases. If any Member has any questions or comments, the Managers will be pleased to respond. A similar Circular is being issued by all International Group Clubs on this subject.
Joseph E.M. Hughes, Chairman & CEO
Shipowners Claims Bureau, Inc., Managers for THE AMERICAN CLUB