Inside the Issues

Stowaways

Introduction

*Stowaways pic for seafarers site
*Photo: Steven Bruijneel, www.dockwork.be

A stowaway is a person who secretes him/herself in a ship without the consent of the shipowner or the person in charge, and who is on board once the ship has left port. 
Stowaways have existed ever since international shipping began, but they have become a growing problem. In recent years, more and more people are leaving their home countries in pursuit of a better life with greater economic chances, or to flee war, discrimination or other conflict. In desperation, and lacking funds to travel, an increasing number have resorted to stowing aboard ship, often in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia, to seek a better life abroad.

Why are stowaways a problem?

Stowaways on board cause legal problems for authorities in ports of call, financial problems for shipowners and states, and human problems for crews who have stowaways on board. In the worst cases, stowaways have outnumbered crews or been refused permission to be landed in ports.

The ITF believes governments must establish proper processes for dealing with stowaways, which do not pass responsibility or blame onto shipping companies or seafarers.

What rights do stowaways have?

An international convention relating to stowaways dates back 50 years, but has not come into force because not enough states have ratified it. This convention covers such issues as the responsibility of the ship's master and relevant authorities when a stowaway is detected, and regulations for their return, including the costs.

Although this convention has not been ratified, the position of stowaways is protected by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. These cover the right to life, and freedom from torture, degrading treatment, slavery, discrimination, and other basic human rights.

How should stowaways be treated?

Stowaways create problems for a crew, but they are not criminals and should have their basic human rights respected and receive fair treatment while on board.

If you find a stowaway, you should:
  • Check their state of health
  • Find out their identity and the reasons they are on board
  • Arrange food and lodging
  • Explain emergency procedures and issue them with a lifejacket and lifeboat place
  • Inform the ship's owner or agent
  • Expect the master to prepare a signed statement containing all information relating to the stowaway, to be given to the authority where the stowaway is delivered
A stowaway should not be arrested or detained (although the master has the right to maintain discipline on board), and should not be forced to work.

Please contact the ITF using the link on the right of the page if you need further information.