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Health and safety

Unique challenges of reporting assaults at sea

24 June 2024

A UK project to improve processes around crime reporting onboard Merchant Navy vessels has begun with a survey on sexual assault at sea. Deborah McPherson reports

Seafarers face many complexities in reporting sexual assault and other offences onboard. Anecdotal reports before the project began suggested crimes are underreported at sea due to ships often being governed by different legal systems, which creates barriers.

Dr Genevieve Waterhouse

'The problem is, there is absolutely no data on the topic,' explains Dr Genevieve Waterhouse, chair of trustees of support organisation Safer Waves, who works as a researcher on the project.

'So we have absolutely no idea how many offences are being committed, how many people are being affected, and therefore how many people are likely to require support resources.

'The idea behind this entirely anonymous survey is to get an idea of how many people are experiencing these offences as victims or as witnesses, and to then try to build the resources needed to support them, both legally and psychologically.'

The survey aims to gather as large a baseline data as possible on the extent of assault and harassment, as well as discrimination, which is why researchers are keen to hear from as many seafarers as possible – whether they have experienced or witness such offences, or have no experience at all of such events. The survey asks about offences covering rape and other assaults while protecting respondents’ privacy. 'We don’t want to dredge up difficult memories so the survey also does not ask lots of detail about the offence itself, and it also lists support services,' adds Dr Waterhouse.

Why do crimes go unreported?

A major issue stems from the isolation of life onboard – Merchant Navy vessels can be hundreds or thousands of miles from the nearest port, without reliable internet or phone access. Seeking help immediately is nearly impossible, says Dr Waterhouse. Even accessing medical care presents major challenges. While basic supplies may be available, confidentiality is also a concern if reporting to senior officers for permission to visit a doctor, especially if they might be perpetrators. The timely collection of forensic evidence is also difficult without prompt shoreside care.

Psychological barriers also deter reporting, says Dr Waterhouse. Without friends or counselling available, it can be hard for victims to recognize harm was done and can end up blaming themselves. Isolation exacerbates these impacts, leaving few options to process trauma. Career concerns over future contracts in the tight-knit shipping industry may well also silence victims.

Legal barriers

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has created guidelines on the preservation of evidence after a crime onboard, and Nautilus was on the working group that drew these up, but the lack of legal powers at sea remains a significant issue. The IMO has also drawn up STCW certification amendments to include training to counter sexual assault and sexual harassment (known as SASH) but these have yet to come into force.

Dr Waterhouse points out that seafarer victims of crime may also be unfamiliar with those foreign laws and justice systems in countries they have no connection to. Language and cultural barriers can prevent engagement with legal processes entirely, while definitions of crimes like assault may also vary significantly between jurisdictions. A further complication is that when vessels are registered with a flag of convenience, that country may have poor regulation and might not enforce international laws – meaning that the legal mechanisms covering the vessel could be insufficient.

Improving support

To address under-reporting, unions, maritime charities and organisations like Safer Waves advocate for improved support structures.

Dr Waterhouse said the main driver for the project came from Safer Waves work with Devon and Cornwall police and discovering the support processes for victims of sexual assault at sea were not fit for purpose.

The findings from the survey will feed into the national response to sexual assault and harassment and gender discrimination – enabling key partners such as unions, maritime charities and the police, to tailor their response to victims, or put into place measures to try and reduce perpetration in the first place.

While crime reporting at sea is likely to always be complex, understanding the issue is key to supporting victims, which is why as many UK Merchant Navy seafarers as possible are urged to take part in the survey, says Dr Waterhouse.

'With data-driven, cooperative efforts between organisations, responses can be tailored to seafarers' isolation and mobile workplaces. Ensuring medical care, counselling and reporting access, regardless of location, would make ships safer places to work. Most importantly, no victim should have to face assault alone.'

Take the survey

The sexual assault of sea survey examines the extent to which UK seafarers and those who work aboard UK registered vessels are exposed to rape, sexual assault, stalking, sexual harassment, and similar offences. Those eligible include all UK seafarers in the Merchant Navy who have worked at sea during the last five years, and/or any individual who has worked on any UK vessel within the last five years, including those with, and without, experience of these types of crime. This includes work on all types of merchant vessels, fishing vessels and private yachts. The survey excludes anyone currently serving in the armed forces.

Take part


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