Illegal immigrants posing as crew members

The reasons for emigrating are essentially the same today as they were at the Beginning of the century; deteriorating economic conditions coupled with political unrest. However, a hundred years ago there was a better balance between the socalled “generators” - countries from where people would emigrate and “receptors” - countries or continents, able to absorb a large influx of individuals. Europe was overpopulated to a degree which is difficult to imagine even today, but vast areas of South America, the USA, Canada and Australia were able to absorb the millions of people who sought a better life for themselves and their families elsewhere.

Immigrants still strive to create a better life for themselves and their families. However, the ‘‘generators’’ are generating far more immigrants than the ‘‘receptors’’ are able, or willing, to receive. Unfortunately, this has created an industry in which masses of people are moved illegally; a modern slave trade, turning immigrants into lawbreakers.

This new slave trade is attractive to organised crime. Thought to be worth around US$1 billion a year in Europe alone, the penalties for getting caught are much lower than for arms or drug smuggling. World-wide earnings derived from illegal immigration are estimated by the magazine ‘‘The Economist’’ to be about US$ 5-7 billion per year!

A favourite method for organising illegal immigration is to arrange for the illegal immigrants to pose as ships' crew. Crews often fly long distances to board a ship in a port where a crew change can easily be arranged. The airport immigration authorities are well aware of the procedure for crews boarding ships and the documents required to obtain a transit visa. On the European continent, thousands of crew members board ships from all over the world every year and in most airports it is considered a matter of routine. However, some years ago, BIMCO and ITIC started receiving reports from port agents describing a new procedure for entering illegal immigrants into Europe and Canada.

The modus operandi is generally as follows: the port agent receives a request from a new principal. The fax or telex looks like most other faxes of this nature and, in his nominating fax or telex, the "owner" explains that the ship will call at the port on short notice, mainly to obtain stores, provisions, fresh water or bunkers. However, the ship also requires a crew change and the agent is asked to submit a pro-forma disbursement account. The language is ‘‘shipping’’ and the ‘‘owner’’ uses the correct terminology and phrases.

The agent, busy with other ships in the port, quickly makes his calculations and dispatches his pro forma. Later the nomination is confirmed. The ‘‘owner’’ now submits instructions for the crew change, ETA of the ship, status on bunkers stemmed, provisions to be delivered etc. He also submits flight details of arriving crew members - details which all serve to give the agent the impression that the ship is due to arrive as advised. Shortly after the crew is due to arrive at the nearest international airport, the agent receives a fax from the ‘‘owner’’.

‘...Unfortunately, the ship has been delayed due to engine problems and you are therefore kindly requested to arrange hotel accommodation for the arriving crew - twelve persons in all.’ The agent sends his driver to the airport to meet the crew. Based on the documentation submitted by the port agent, as well as passports and seamen's books, transit visas are issued for the crew to board the ship within forty eight hours. The driver takes the crew to a hotel used in these situations and makes sure that all twelve are checked in.

Next morning, back in the office, the agent has a few questions for the ‘‘owner’’ and therefore tries to ring him. Strangely enough, nobody answers the phone in the ‘‘owners’’ office, even though it is certainly within office hours. Shortly afterwards the phone rings. It is the hotel manager who informs the agent that the twelve crew members had apparently disappeared from the hotel in the middle of the night. At this point, the agent realises for the first time that something is very, very wrong.

An enquiry is made to BIMCO, the IMB and ITIC into the background of the ship and the company. The agent is informed that the ship does not exist, or the details submitted do not fit the name of the ship. The ‘‘owner’’ is not listed in any current reference books. The phone numbers used are all mobile numbers.

Even though completely unaware of his actual role, the agent has just been instrumental in entering twelve illegal immigrants into his country. The methods and countries may differ slightly, but the procedure is basically the same. In most countries, the immigration authorities look upon such incidents very seriously. For example, the Canadian immigration authorities have the ability to impose serious sanctions and fines on a company which has failed to exercise due diligence as a port agent. These economic sanctions start at approximately US$ 5,000 per illegal person but may be as much as US$ 21,000 per person. In other countries the agent will be held responsible for all costs involved in housing and repatriating illegal immigrants.

Illegal immigration is almost impossible to prevent, even if the immigration authorities were equipped with the most modern equipment to detect and prevent it. As an example, the US borders are generally considered to be well guarded, by a special federal police force, using high-tech equipment to detect illegal immigrants and prevent them crossing the borders.

US territorial waters are guarded by the US Coast Guard from air, land and sea. Yet, the US Immigration and Naturalisation Office has estimated that the USA houses 3.7 million illegal immigrants - and that this figure is growing by 300,000 a year.

What steps should the ship agent take? He should establish systems in his office whereby no new principals will be accepted without a thorough investigation into their background and performance. In its most simple form, an in-house questionnaire would suffice, listing full details of the principal and the information available concerning this owner and his trade record from outside sources. Information can be obtained from ITIC as well as organisations such as BIMCO or professional credit enquiry agencies.

Some port agents may argue that time does not allow for such in-depth investigations. The question is whether port agents, exposed to this type of fraudulent activity, can afford not to have documented procedures in place, demonstrating to the local authorities that they are in fact exercising due diligence in checking and verifying the true identity of the companies on whose behalf they are acting. If not, the financial consequences can be severe and, in some cases, devastating for the port agent.

Setting up such procedures for checking the background of all new principals approaching the company, has a very positive side effect. It substantially reduces the possibility of encountering principals with poor payment records and poor reputations.

This article was contributed by Peter Grube of BIMCO.

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