What are the next steps if you find a stowaway on board?

If a stowaway is discovered, the Master must begin planning for his/her disembarkation and repatriation. A report should be sent to the shipowner, P&I club and the agents at the last and next port of call. The report should contain this information:

Download stowaway reporting form:

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Identification Papers

For the stowaway to be granted permission to travel back to the home country they will need the correct travel documents. In order to issue these documents the identity of the stowaway must be established. This can be a difficult process and the Master or delegated crew member may have to conduct a number of interviews, search the individual and the place where they were found for information. It is recommended that ships carry digital cameras and have the ability to forward documents and/or photographs by email. Once identity is established, this information can be forwarded to the relevant country’s embassy or consulate so that they can issue temporary travel permits.

*These documents cannot be issued immediately and it is therefore important that the Master begins the notification process as outlined above as soon as possible. The stowaways may not be able to disembark at the first port of call if the necessary travel documents have not been received. The ship will then have to continue to her next scheduled port with the stowaways on board.

However, amendments to the FAL Convention recommend that in the case of undocumented stowaways, the port state shall issue a so-called covering letter authorising his/her return and containing the relevant information and a picture of the stowaway. It should also include any information required by authorities at transit points. It should be remembered that the issue of such a document is conditional on compliance with relevant national legislation.

The stowaways will then be repatriated at the first available opportunity. Immigration authorities usually only allow repatriations to take place if the ship is still in port so that the stowaway can be put back on board should the repatriation fail. Hong Kong immigration authorities even require the ship to remain in port until such time as confirmation has been received from the country of origin that the stowaway has landed and has been accepted.

Can a vessel divert to land as soon as a Stowaway is discovered?

When a stowaway is discovered shortly after leaving port, a Master may be tempted to divert to land; however, this could have serious consequences in terms of P&I cover and would also be in breach of IMO regulations.

“…the shipowner should instruct the Master to stick to the planned voyage after the vessel has left the territorial waters of the country of embarkation, except where permission to disembark the stowaway is given by the port to which the ship intends to deviate or repatriation has been arranged elsewhere with sufficient documentation and permission for disembarkation, or if there are extenuating security, health or compassionate reasons”.

One of the most important actions to take on discovering stowaways is to notify the Shipowner, P&I club and ports-of-call.

Country and Port Exemptions

Stowaways without documents will not be allowed to disembark in most jurisdictions, except on occasion South Africa, some West African countries and Brazil. There are exceptions. Stowaways seeking political asylum or those in need of medical attention may be disembarked without documents.

If stowaways are in possession of travel documents, repatriation is possible from most countries. However, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore will not usually allow disembarkation of stowaways even if they carry passports.

What if the Stowaway Claims Political Asylum?

If a stowaway seeks political asylum when the vessel arrives in port, immigration authorities will frequently take responsibility for the stowaway. If the port the authorities refuse to disembark a stowaway who it is felt has a genuine case for asylum it is possible to involve the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Local authorities have been known to demand a guarantee from the shipowner, to cover all or part of the costs of detention and repatriation should the stowaway not be granted asylum. If the stowaway’s asylum bid fails immigration authorities will make the necessary arrangements for repatriation, however; the shipowner will be held liable for the repatriation expenses.

What is the Process for Disembarkation of a Stowaway?

It is important to ensure that any disembarkation of stowaways is conducted in an official manner in the presence of the vessel’s local agents or insurance representative.
In a few instances the Master has handed over a stowaway and repatriation money to people purporting to be local authorities. The stowaway has then been released unofficially with significant consequences for those involved.

Alternative Ways to Disembark Stowaways

The IMO sets our clear guidance for the disembarkation of stowaways. The flag state should urge the shipowner to instruct the Master to stick to the planned voyage after the vessel has left the territorial waters of the country of embarkation.

The exceptions are:

  • The required documentation is available and permission has been granted by the port to which the ship intends to deviate to disembark the stowaway, or
  • Repatriation has been arranged elsewhere again with the appropriate documentation and permission for disembarkation, or
  • There are extenuating security, health or compassionate reasons for immediate disembarkation.

A stowaway found inadmissible in the country of disembarkation must be returned to the country of embarkation, which is not permitted to return the stowaway to the country of disembarkation. If a country refuses permission to disembark the stowaway, it must immediately notify the flag state of the reasons for the refusal.

The repatriation of a stowaway from a foreign port can be a lengthy and expensive process. Where shipowners operate liner services it is possible to return stowaways on one of these returning vessels. With permission from the immigration authorities at any ports on route where the vessel will stop, and provided it is safe for the crew, the vessel and the stowaway, the stowaway can remain on board the ship until it returns to the port where the stowaway originally boarded. Shipowner’s may also be able to transfer a stowaway to another ship in the same ownership if that ship is going to the port where the stowaway boarded. In these cases, guards could be hired as watch keepers to safeguard the stowaways while the vessel is in transit.

Learn more about hiring professional maritime security officers

What happens to a Stowaway on Disembarkation?

As soon as instructions are received from the vessel’s Master, agent, P&I club or owner, and the relevant authorities (harbour, immigration etc.) are in agreement that identities have been confirmed and travel arrangements are in place, the disembarkation process can begin. At this stage the ship’s insurers will have provided the shipowner with an estimate of the cost of repatriation.
With the assistance of the police, the stowaways will disembark and be escorted to a police detention centre pending further investigations. In most instances a shipowners insurance will provide an agent to oversee the process and ensure the stowaways are repatriated.

What is the cost to shipowners of stowaways?

In principle, the owners are responsible for all costs incurred as a result of having a stowaway on board. However, some charter party agreements contain a stowaway clause which states that the charterer is responsible for all costs incurred. Owners should ensure they are familiar with the stowaway clauses in their respective CPAs before commencement of the voyage.

The carrier will normally be liable for a person on board who is not in possession of valid identification papers. The carrier is also likely to be held liable for the cost of food/lodging, repatriation and the cost of any escorts hired for the repatriation. The Member may also be liable for fines incurred where stowaways have escaped from the ship, e.g. in Spain. Furthermore, the owner may be liable for fines levied by the authorities for each person arriving on their ship who is unable to produce the necessary visa or other entry documentation. Such fines are normally covered under the P&I policy. Any damage to the vessel and/or cargo as a result of the stowaway being on board is not covered under the P&I policy and neither are consequential losses. In addition, measures taken to prevent stowaways boarding the vessel are considered operational matters and are therefore not covered under P&I. Shipowners can also be liable for medical treatment or medical examination of stowaways.

Prevention is always better than cure. Conducting thorough Port Risk Assessments and ensuring preventative measures are taken against stowaways boarding a vessel in the first place are extremely important. Dryad Global provides bespoke transit and port risk assessments to ensure that CSO and Master’s have a complete understanding of the risk levels for stowaways at their port of calls. Any Master who has had to deal with a stowaway situation on board will agree that time and money invested in preventing stowaways from boarding a vessel is time and money well spent.