Stowaways: the hidden truth?

Following issue of the IMO’s statistics for stowaways in 2014, Dryad’s Head of Operations, Mike Edey, discusses the challenges of accurate reporting when so many incidents go unreported and the number of stowaways that successfully complete their journey go undetected.

IMO has recently released its annual statistics for stowaways in 2014. The headline figures could provide a good news headline, ‘A 40% drop in reported stowaway incidents in 2014’, but is this really the case?

It is difficult to believe that with the mass, irregular migration around the world, in particular from North Africa across the Mediterranean, that there were only 120 cases reported worldwide in 2014, a drop of over 40% from the 203 reported in 2013. I suppose this could be seen as a good news story and an argument that security has improved in all the ports which deters people from attempting to embark on ships in an unconventional manner. However, this reporting accounts for the stowaways that were caught or identified and not the total number. How many stowaways actually managed to evade capture? We are unlikely to ever know the real numbers but with record level of irregular migration from Africa witnessed in 2014[1], and a reported reduction in stowaway numbers, this rather than being good news suggests that incidents were almost certainly not reported or security at the port failed to stop them.

It is difficult to judge exactly how many incidents have gone unreported, or the number of stowaways that successfully completed their journey undetected. The IMO’s stowaway report in 2008 set a high point of 494 incidents and 2052 actual stowaways, seven times that reported in 2007 and twice as many as reported in 2009. However, none of the reports attempts to explain the spike. Is it just an anomaly? Has security at ports really improved so much since 2008 that these irregular migrants dare not risk being caught on board a merchant ship while accepting the possibility of death in the Mediterranean? Has the security situation in Africa or the Middle East improved so much that there is no need for these methods of irregular migration, or do the 2008 figures represent a closer approximation of the actual numbers of stowaways? Unfortunately, we are unlikely to ever know the actual numbers involved.


 Reported Stowaways 2014 graph

[1] Irregular migration numbers source


Maritime security sits at the heart of this issue. These stowaways instead of being political or economic migrants could possibly be terrorists attempting to gain access to western countries via less protected routes. Islamic State have already made a clear intent to use the irregular migrant routes in the Mediterranean to enter southern Europe. What is to stop them attempting to do it as stowaways? Until we have clear reporting and a better understanding of the problem, it is likely that ports, and some shipping companies will ignore it. There should be no stigma attached with being recorded in the IMO’s stowaway statistics as it represents demonstrable success on the part of the shipping companies and ports in catching them, rather than letting them slip away. The question is, ‘are we seeing the full scale of the problem or is the truth, like the stowaways, hidden from our view?’


Mike Edey, Head of Operations