Spare a thought for the victims of piracy

Piracy in the public imagination is shrouded in tales of derring-do and yo-ho-ho. Hollywood’s given us the charismatic Captain Jack Sparrow, not so much a charlatan as a fashion statement. The reality is very different as I discovered recently in Mumbai at the India Shipping Summit.

The conference heard heart-rending testimony from someone who came face to face with the ugly face of piracy: Captain Makne, whose crew was captured despite putting up a valiant defence. It was all over so quickly, he told us.  Despite protecting the ship with barbed wire, and using water jets to repel the pirates, they still managed to get on board, firearms bristling, and then the nightmare began. A seven month long ordeal, during which Captain Makne and his men were at the mercy of their violent and unpredictable captors – Somali youths, intoxicated out of their minds on qat and impatient for their payoff. Because that’s what it’s all about. Piracy may once have been about small-time banditry but no longer.

Indian Ocean piracy today is a lucrative, highly organised business stemming from the long-running Somali civil war with tentacles that stretch much further. Its financial backers have connections throughout the region lured by multi-million dollar pay-offs. Why? Because the ransoms being paid for seamen taken hostage have soared by a factor of ten since 2006 to an average of $4m – $5m today. The financial links are murky and are thought to stretch far beyond the Somalian pirates who actually carry out the attacks to a host of intermediaries and financiers around neighbouring African countries and into the Gulf region.

And it’s getting progressively worse, year by year despite the presence of around twenty warships from the world’s main trading nations around the Horn of Africa and along the West coast of India. And despite the occasional, successful naval counter-attack, most recently on the day of the India Shipping Summit itself, when an Italian ship was re-taken by British and American special forces within 24 hours of capture. A rare victory.

The shipping industry has reluctantly moved towards putting armed guards on board ships. Britain is the latest nation to endorse this controversial step,  supported in the main by the delegates in Mumbai, though there were some dissenting voices who warned against the potential hazards of putting mercenaries on board commercial vessels.

I leave you with this thought: at the beginning of 2011, at the height of the ‘hostage season’ there were over seven hundred seamen being held hostage. Did you know that? No,  me neither. The vast majority of hostages are poor Asians – from India, China, Philippines and elsewhere, who can languish for months with scant attention from the world’s media. The mood of the Indian Shipping Summit was sombre, despairing even. They don’t hold out much hope for improvement any time soon. What do you think?