Stowaway Tragedy in Tilbury

Photo (c) Shutterstock/chungking
Photo (c) Shutterstock/chungking

By Ian Millen

The discovery of 35 Afghani Sikhs in a shipping container in the port of Tilbury, UK, has sent shockwaves through the British media, as the realization of how fortunate the 34 survivors of the ordeal were to be alive dawns upon the general public and the newly-designated asylum seekers pass into the care of medical professionals and Border Force officials, with the support of a concerned local community.

Tragedy had struck in the last leg of the illegal migrants’ route in the early hours of Saturday morning. A route that terminated with a passage from Zeebrugge to Tilbury in the airless steel container that threatened to become a cold and dark coffin for all of its occupants. With ages ranging from 1 to 72, the families brought their ordeal to an end by drawing the attention of dock workers to their plight with a frenzied banging and screaming from within, sadly not before one of their number, 40 year-old Meet Singh Kapoor, had died in his family’s arms – a end he tragically shared with the 58 Chinese migrants who succumbed to a similar fate in when they died in a truck from Zeebrugge to Dover some 14 years ago, albeit that the cause of Mr Kapoor’s death remains unknown at present.

As I faced the questions of the media, presenters were baffled and surprised at how a container could be transported between countries without knowing its contents. Who owned the box? How can it be that the migrants got inside? Why wasn’t this spotted? Readers who are familiar with the processes of container shipping will know just how possible it is to get around what, on the face of it, would seem to be good security measures even in the post 9/11 era of ISPS. In addition to their questions above, journalists were interested to know the type and scale of the problem evidenced in Tilbury at the weekend.

The two most known forms of organized immigration crime are human trafficking and people smuggling. In the former, victims are coerced and transported under duress into a life of prostitution or enforced servitude – effectively modern-day slavery. In the latter, an example of which we saw in Tilbury, victims pay large sums of money to criminal gangs who arrange for their transport to countries where they expect to embark on new and better lives or generate income to support families left behind – desperate people who will go to great lengths, including risking their lives, to make a better life for themselves and their families.

The sad fact is that as long as there are desperate and vulnerable people, there will be ruthless criminals waiting to exploit them; parting them from their life’s savings, transporting them like cattle with no concern for their welfare, especially once their profits have been realised; normally in advance. A shipping container is no place for human cargo; almost airtight, subject to extremes of heat and cold and impossible to escape from when locked from the outside without help, it is little wonder that this incident ended in tragedy and surprising that it wasn’t an even more tragic end, just like the Chinese migrants whose hope for a better life ended with the sad repatriation of their bodies to China back in 2000.

The really worrying aspect of this latest incident is the potential for this to be the start of a new trend, as organized criminals seek to exploit destination ports less used to the daily ‘cat and mouse’ games played out at the Channel ports, where highly skilled border officials in the UK and France conduct technology-enabled, intelligence-led operations to stem the constant flow of illegal migrants. Targeting new destinations and using new modes of transport, such as shipping containers, could be the criminals’ latest attempt to seize the initiative and combat increasingly efficient border controls and alert truck drivers who are well aware of the significant fines imposed if they unwittingly transport migrants across national borders.

The sheer number of container movements and the known criminal methods of circumventing security measures that can make seals and contents lists meaningless, means that we are likely to see other similar and equally dangerous attempts to transport desperate people for criminal profit. Just like the dangerously overcrowded boats that we see leaving the shores of North Africa for a better life in Europe, there is no shortage of desperate people either fleeing war and persecution or hoping for a better life for their families. Equally, there is no shortage of organized criminal groups who care nothing for their welfare and are purely motivated by greed. If their fee-paying clients perish in the act of fleeing, then there will always be plenty more where they came from. Only by tracking them down and bringing them to justice is there any hope of reducing the number of such tragic events. Very sadly, with armed conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq and other nations and economic inequality across the globe, will inevitably mean that desperate people will continue to risk life and limb to win the prize of a better life, with or without the assistance of organized criminals.

The challenge for the maritime industry, ports and border officials is to reduce the probability of these potential tragedies by engaging in increasingly innovative technologies, intelligence-led operations and cooperation across national boundaries to minimise tragic outcomes. Not an easy task, but a very important one.

Ian Millen is Chief Operating Officer of Dryad Maritime, an operations and intelligence firm supporting managers and mariners in the commercial and leisure maritime industries.