Smugglers using COVID crisis to increase maritime activities

The COVID-19 pandemic has  driven a rise in people trafficking as both people and drug smugglers come up with more elaborate ways in which to get onto vessels.

Mutual liability insurer ITIC (International Transport Intermediaries Club), has warned its ship and port agent members to be aware of approaches from people traffickers attempting to smuggle illegal immigrants through their ports.

The ongoing issues with the inability to change crews in ports across the world has been seized on by the people smuggling gangs.

The underwriters said there is growing evidence that traffickers, pretending to be shipping companies, are approaching ship agents, and requesting them to handle a change of crew, including booking travel and accommodation.

Operating through an agent in this way gives the traffickers a degree of legitimacy and provides a cover for their illegal operations. Often the ship agent will make the arrangements but the migrants will simply disappear.

Andrew Jamieson, ITIC’s Claims Director, explained:  “This is not a new issue but we have seen a re-emergence of this scam. Sadly, in the past some of our members have fallen for this scam and have been left with unpaid hotel bills and other expenses. More seriously, they can face fines from the immigration authorities plus liability for detention and repatriation costs if the migrants are caught.”

He continued: “Coronavirus has impacted heavily on the process of crew changes and this appears to have shifted focus away from people smuggling. Traffickers are resourceful and can pass themselves off as a legitimate vessel operator. Not every offer of business is genuine and due diligence should be carried out on all potential new clients. We urge our members, and others, to remain extremely vigilant.”

It comes as a leading lawyer has warned of the rise in the use of commercial vessels for drug smuggling and the legal ramifications for the owner and charterer should illegal substances be discovered.

Ian Short partner at law firm Campbell Johnson Clark (CJC)  has warned where narcotics are discovered, the ship will most likely be detained to allow for an extensive forensic investigation to take place.

“Fines can be imposed and, if the crew are deemed to be involved, arrests and criminal charges can be made with criminal sanctions to follow,” he warned. “The criminal aspects of the drug smuggling attempt would be subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the country where the drugs were discovered, where the vessel and the drugs are located and, possibly, where the drugs were first concealed on board.”

Mr Short added for the owner, the resulting delays can potentially lead to periods of loss of hire and can give rise to claims from cargo interests, especially where the cargo is perishable. Subsequent fixtures may be missed as well if the delays prevent the vessel from meeting its next laycan.

“Resolving these types of claims between vessel interests (owners, charterers, sub-charterers etc.) can become particularly contentious especially where there is an absence of specific wording in any charterparty,” he explained.

One issue that can arise is the fact that many of the novel methods of smuggling narcotics were not envisaged when the relevant clauses between owner and charterer were drafted and so, for example, the scenario envisaged above may not fall neatly within the charterparty clauses.

“The implications of drug smuggling go far beyond the initial fines and criminal sanctions and can have wide ranging commercial impacts under charterparties and bills of lading,” added Mr Short. “Given the prevalence of such activity at certain ports, and the increasingly novel ways in which drug traffickers are conducting their illegal activities using ships, it is recommended that shipowners and charterers ensure that clearly worded provisions are contained within their charterparties and, where appropriate, their standard terms, to ensure that disputes do not materialise from contractual ambiguities.”