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Seafarer kidnappings: global action needed in the Gulf of Guinea

9 June 2021

The Gulf of Guinea has become the new hotspot for piracy, with the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reporting 130 cases of kidnapping in 2020 – over 95% of all crew members kidnapped worldwide. Saffiyah Khalique reports

How bad is the situation?

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) there were reports of 195 cases of piracy and armed robbery in 2020, an increase from the 162 reported in 2019. This rise in cases has been attributed to the increase of piracy reported in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as increased cases of armed robbery in the Singapore Straits.

In 2020, 161 vessels were boarded, there were 20 attempted attacks and 11 vessels were fired upon. Some 135 crew were kidnapped globally, with the Gulf of Guinea accounting for over 95% of crew members kidnapped. In 80% of incidents the attackers were armed with guns.

In the first quarter of 2021, the IMB reports 38 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships compared with 47 in the first quarter of 2020. This threat of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has only grown with the gulf accounting for 43% of all reported incidents and – as mentioned above – a shockingly high percentage of kidnappings. These incidents include two vessels being fired upon and the hijacking of a vessel.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) just four to six groups were responsible for nearly 25 kidnappings of seafarers in the gulf in 2020. The pirates have received a total of nearly 4 million USD in ransom. The report suggests that pirate groups appear to have connections at the political level in the Niger Delta region in Southwest Nigeria, which could provide a possible explanation for the lack of action taken towards piracy in the area.

The UNDOC said the weak level of prosecution could become a 'motivating factor for future pirates that see great opportunity and very little risk'.

The Gulf of Guinea was listed as an at risk area by the Joint War Committee (JWC), which is a Lloyd’s market committee looking at insurance reporting requirements. Seafarers have the option of leaving the vessels before it enters the area and payrates are higher reflecting the risks of operating in that area. The JWC notes that oil cargo seizures have been a problem in the Gulf of Guinea, but the recent focus is on abductions.

What is being done to tackle piracy?

On 17 May BIMCO and Danish Shipping produced the Gulf of Guinea Declaration on Suppression of Piracy. It demands that no seafarer should have to face the risks of kidnapping and violence when transporting cargo, supporting the offshore sector, or fishing in the Gulf of Guinea.

More than 300 shipowners, charterers, and flag states have joined this pledge so far. Co-signatories include A.P. Møller-Maersk, CMA CGM and Hapag-Lloyd.

The declaration names the ways in which they aim to combat piracy in the Gulf, including supporting antipiracy law enforcement, supporting the deployment of law enforcement from regional coastal states, facilitating the implementation of effective shipboard defensive measures and improving domain awareness and sharing of relevant information between antipiracy law enforcement forces and agencies. Signatories will support the fight against piracy onshore by providing prison facilities for arrested pirates and encouraging coastal states in the Gulf of Guinea to actively prosecute.

The Declaration sets goals, as bare minimum, by the end of 2023:

• The number of attacks by pirates should be reduced from current levels by at least 80%
• No seafarers should have been kidnapped from a ship in the preceding 12-month period

Danish Shipping ceo Anne H. Steffensen said: 'I hope that with this call we can get more countries to speak out and get more people to take on their share of the security task. Denmark cannot take this big task on alone, so more people both in and outside the region must follow suit. Otherwise, creating better security for seafarers in the area will just happen too slowly.'

On 18 May, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) released a resolution on recommended action to address piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea adopted by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC). This calls on Member States, national authorities, the United Nations and other organisations to consider strengthening law enforcement to arrest and prosecute pirates in relevant jurisdictions, in accordance with international law and national legal frameworks.

The resolution also calls for improved governance of available protection solutions, such as security escort vehicles to assist other vessels. Members states, other authorities and organisations are encouraged to support wider participation in the work of the Gulf of Guinea Maritime Forum, Friends of the Gulf of Guinea and other platforms.

The IMO highlights the need for greater collaboration with all critical stakeholders, including information sharing on maritime criminality and illegality, use of maritime domain awareness and the use of surface and/or air patrols.

Meanwhile, Nigerian authorities have launched the Deep Blue Project, their own initiative to tackle piracy with land, sea and air assets: a 'Command, Control, Communication, Computer and Intelligence Centre' (C4i) to gather data and intelligence; 16 armoured vehicles for coastal patrol; around 600 specially trained troops; two surveillance aircraft, four unmanned aerial vehicles and three helicopters for search and rescue; two special mission vessel and 17 fast interceptor boats.

The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) began the final phase for the delivery and installation of assets on 12 May. NIMASA director general Dr Bashir Jamoh said there had already been a drastic reduction in the rate of attacks in the country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with the deployment of the Deep Blue Project assets: 'The figures we are getting from the International Maritime Bureau are encouraging. We ultimately aim to completely eradicate security hindrances to shipping and business generally in the Nigerian maritime domain.'

Know your rights  

The most recent update to international employment rights for seafarers captured by pirates came into effect on 26 December 2020. The new rights – set out in the 2018 amendments to the ILO Maritime Labour Convention – ensure that a Seafarer Employment Agreement (SEA) will remain in place while a seafarer is held captive by pirates on or off the ship. This still holds even if the seafarer's contract expires or is terminated by the shipowner, ensuring that seafarers will still be paid their full wages whilst in captivity and receive any other entitlements due from the shipowner under the terms of their SEA, collective bargaining agreement or national law of the flag state. These entitlements could include holiday pay and pension contributions. 

According to the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) seafarers working on vessels that are covered by the International Bargaining Forum (IBF) and Total Crew Cost (TCC) agreements are entitled to be informed at the time of assignment if the vessel is bound for or may enter any Warlike Operations or High-Risk areas, and an up-to-date list of IBF Warlike Operations areas should be kept onboard and made accessible to the crew. Seafarers are also entitled to know if they are entering a Warlike Operations area while at sea. 

Entitlements depend on the area entered. If a vessel enters a Warlike Area you: 

  • Have the right not to proceed to such an area and are entitled to repatriation at the employer's cost 
  • Are entitled to double compensation for disability and death 
  • Are entitled to be paid a bonus equal to 100% of the daily basic wage for the duration of the ship's stay – subject to a minimum of five days' pay 
  • Have the right to accept or decline an assignment in a Warlike Area without risking losing employment or suffering any other detrimental effects 

There is also employment protection in place if a seafarer becomes a captive because of piracy or hijacking inside or outside the IBF and ITF designated areas. For vessels covered by non-IBF (TCC) agreements, the areas are designated by the ITF. 


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