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Stowaways: how to avoid criminalisation

27 February 2023

Nautilus is asking members to be aware of the legal implications of stowaways onboard, as assisting them can pose a risk of criminalisation for crew.

Hundreds of stowaway incidents are believed to take place every year. The cost to shipping companies of returning a stowaway to their point of origin can run to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and the formalities can cause costly delays to vessels.

However, if seafarers are found to have helped stowaways to disembark they can be liable for prosecution. A circular from West of England P&I club highlighted a case in which crew became friendly with stowaways during a voyage from Kenya to South Africa, and after giving them clothes and money helped them to swim to the opposite side of the dock in Durban to board another vessel. When two of the stowaways drowned the crew were initially charged with murder, later reduced to manslaughter with immigration offences.

The Union successfully campaigned in 2021 for the UK government to amend its Nationality and Borders Bill to prevent seafarers from being criminalised for fulfilling their responsibility under international law to rescue those in distress at sea. It will be closely monitoring this situation as well to ensure that members are not unfairly treated during the inevitably difficult situation when a stowaway is found onboard.

If members find themselves in a situation involving a stowaway, Nautilus director of legal services Charles Boyle says: 'The IMO's Resolution FAL 13(42) provides updated guidance on the prevention of access by stowaways and the allocation of responsibilities to seek the resolution of stowaway cases, with a helpful template of a report form in the appendix. This form should be completed by the master and given to concerned authorities, such as the port of embarkation, next ports of call, flag state and the shipowner. Members who become involved in such issues should contact their industrial organiser for advice and assistance in the first instance.'

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