Abduction risks for crew rise in southeast Asia

Abduction risks are concern for crew in some areas of southeast Asia. Credit: US Navy

While much of the international community’s recent focus on piracy and other maritime security risks has centred on the African continent, such risks were prevalent in the southeast Asian region before the political spotlight shone on Somali and Gulf of Guinea waters. Such risks persist in the southeast Asia today.

Moreover, while the number of piracy and armed robbery attacks there is generally dropping, following a recent peak of 203 incidents in 2015, there was a surge in attacks late in 2017, with 101 recorded for the year compared with 85 in 2016. This prompted a call for vigilance and a warning against complacency in the fight against piracy and armed robbery against ships from Masafumi Kuroki, executive director of the Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia Information Sharing Centre (ReCAAP ISC).

One particular threat that continues to cause concern for the international shipping and seafarer communities is the risk of crew abduction. Here, an area of particular risk is the Sulu and Celebes seas. Talking to Fairplay sister title Safety at Sea (SAS), Kuroki said this region had become an abduction ‘hot spot’ during 2016/17, where the more serious incidents occurring in southeast Asia had taken place. In this period there were 23 abduction incidents. While 10 attacks were unsuccessful, 59 seafarers were seized. Of these, 43 have since been rescued or released, but 9 remain captive and 7 have been killed.

ReCAAP ISC classifies the abduction attacks as ‘Category 1’ – the most serious type of incident within its spectrum of four categories, in terms of the levels of violence used and the type of materials/property stolen. Category 1 attacks are usually conducted by organised groups, said Kuroki. The Abu Sayyaf militant group (ASG) is understood to have been responsible for a number of the attacks and abductions.

Kuroki said the abductions by ASG were “a new phenomenon against ships … particularly a series of attacks in that short period”, with incidents sometimes occurring more than once a month. This was “a quite exceptional case that took place in Asia”, Kuroki argued. “It is a very serious threat for the shipping companies as well as for seafarers.”

In its annual report, ReCAAP ISC noted that, with abductions still taking place in 2017, the ASG threat persisted in the region. Kuroki said the threat “is not completely eradicated … in these islands, so we have to still remain vigilant”.

Turning the tide

However, only three abduction incidents took place in the region in 2017, with the last attack occurring in March. There were a further four attempted – but unsuccessful – attacks in the year, with the last taking place in April.

The drop in the number of attacks has in large part been due to increased military and law-enforcement activity by the Philippines, but has been helped by improved trilateral co-ordination between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines on maritime border patrols and information sharing, under the ‘IndoMalPhi’ concept and involving naval and coastguard forces. The three countries have an overlapping maritime border in, for example, the Sibutu Passage. The three have also established their own national maritime command centres, with these monitoring stations located at Tarakan (Indonesia), Tawau (Malaysia), and Bongao (Philippines).

The Philippines’ national efforts include establishing a recommended transit corridor between the Moro Gulf, south of the island of Mindanao, and the Basilan Strait, north of Basilan Island. This move, introduced by the Philippines Department of Transportation, is aimed at steering ships through a narrower passage that can be better monitored by the Philippine Coast Guard.

Such national and multinational efforts help offset the instability that fostered the attacks in the first place. Yet the risk remains significant for the shipping and seafarer communities. ReCAAP ISC’s advice to those sailing in the region includes: to use alternative routes if possible; to conduct a risk assessment and implement required measures; to exercise enhanced vigilance; and to maintain timely communications with coastal states’ maritime reporting centres.

Evolving threat

Despite the enduring abduction risk and the increase in piracy incidents in 2017, the overall trend for piracy in southeast Asia continues to be downwards. A number of factors underpin this trend, including higher levels of multinational co-operation, improved security at ports and anchorages, and shipping companies implementing recognised best practice in how to operate ships securely.

However, the region’s maritime landscape, made up of shallows, narrow and isolated transit routes, choke points, and small islands, lends itself to the risk of criminal activity. Moreover, there remains significant concern over what seems to be increasing brazenness among criminals in the region, with attackers targeting larger ships as well as conducting abductions.

The seeming growth in ferocity of pirates operating in the Sulu-Celebes region can be related to recent events in the southern Philippine archipelago, where a number of militant cells linked to ASG have begun adopting a modus operandi more commonly associated with hijack-for-ransom syndicates.

Previously, these ASG cells, which operate primarily across the islands of Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, and Sibutu, in the Sulu archipelago off eastern Sabah, funded their activities by carrying out kidnap-for-ransom activities on land. However, factors such as increasing pressure from the Philippines’ law-enforcement agencies ashore and growing competition from another ASG faction operating on Mindanao Island in recent years forced the Basilan faction of the group to resort to ship attacks instead.

Shared responsibility

Kuroki argued that all stakeholders shared responsibility for delivering safety at sea, with coastal states required to maintain law-enforcement activity while the shipping industry needed to conduct risk assessments and implement preventive measures.

ReCAAP ISC also plays a part here, with the publication of its Regional Guide to Counter Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia in February 2016. This document is designed to provide advice for shipowners and seafarers on securing their ships in areas of concern. Kuroki acknowledged that ReCAAP ISC did not impose any obligation on shipping companies to implement advice provided in the guide or in any of its other outputs. However, Kuroki added, “If they do not take preventive measures, then they may run a bigger risk.

“So it’s a kind of balance of the cost of preventive measures or avoiding the dangerous areas and the cost of the attack that they may encounter. I think the shipping companies are [balancing] not only the economic loss but also the safety of the seafarers when they make that decision.” Despite there being no obligation on the part of the shipping companies to heed such guidance, Kuroki said the industry had certainly been receptive to the advice, especially as regards areas of concern such as the Sulu-Celebes seas regions. Here, he said, “Since we issued this advisory .… I understand that some shipping companies are avoiding that area”, even if this might add time and cost to certain transits.

As regards the situation in this region in early 2018, Kuroki said ReCAAP ISC was continuing to advise the shipping community to maintain vigilance, share information, and implement preventive measures."

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