LONDON – Under cover of darkness, British commandos of four Navy helicopters hovering over the English Channel slid onto the deck of an oil tanker.
It had been ten hours since the ship’s captain, the Nave Andromeda, asked for help after stowaways aboard threatened violence against the tanker’s crew as they neared shore. Within minutes, the operation off the Isle of Wight was over and seven stowaways were in custody.
The Defense Ministry described the situation on Sunday as a “suspected kidnapping”. However, a representative from the company that manages the ship said it was not a hijack and the captain had retained control of the tanker.
The BBC reported that members of the Special Boat Service roped down ropes from four Royal Navy helicopters on Sunday evening and that the stowaways were believed to be seeking asylum in the UK.
The Department of Defense declined to provide any further information about the operation, saying it was against its policy to comment on special forces operations. The Special Boat Service is an elite counter-terrorism unit in the Royal Navy and is headquartered in Poole, a town on the south coast of England, not far from where the ship sought help.
However, the ministry issued a brief statement stating that the armed forces had been given permission to “board a ship in the English Channel in order to save life and secure a ship suspected of being kidnapped”. It was said that the armed forces had taken control of the ship and seven people had been arrested.
Navios Maritime Holdings, the Greek company that owns Nave Andromeda, said in a statement that the ship’s captain had informed British authorities that stowaways had been found on board because “he was concerned about the increasingly hostile behavior for the safety of the Crew was concerned of stowaways. “
A company spokesman said, however, that the crew did not lose control of the ship despite seeking refuge in a safe area of the ship and that the description of the incident as a hijacking was inaccurate.
Problems on board the Nave Andromeda – a Liberian-flagged ship – began at 10 a.m. on Sunday, about six miles off the Isle of Wight in the English Channel, according to Hampshire Police Department responsible for the area.
The tanker had headed for the port of Southampton after leaving Lagos, Nigeria three weeks ago. Hampshire Police are investigating the events to determine the full circumstances.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace commended the armed forces and police for their work in a statement posted on Twitter early Monday.
“When the sky is dark and the weather is bad, we should all be grateful for our brave staff,” he said. “People are safe tonight thanks to your efforts.”
Tobias Ellwood, a Member of Parliament and chairman of the Defense Selection Committee, told Talk Radio on Monday that the special forces were involved and that the crew had known about the stowaways for some time before the events played out on Sunday. The threats started as the boat neared shore, he said.
“As soon as it became known that there were seven stowaways on board and the ship’s crew did not fully control the ship, it would have triggered a multiagency alarm,” said Ellwood. “And then well-established protocols, classified protocols, would have been triggered that cover the entire spectrum of possible results.”
Bob Sanguinetti, executive director of the UK Chamber of Commerce, said stowaways on merchant ships are not uncommon – there were about 90 cases a year on average, with around 230 people worldwide – but that only a small percentage occurred in UK waters.
“They range from political refugees to economic migrants. People really want to find a new life elsewhere,” said Sanguinetti. “And that seems to have been the case in this particular case.”
While rare, similar events occurred in the Thames Estuary in 2018 when a group of stowaways apparently threatened the crew of a cargo ship and prompted special forces to act.
Hijacking, on the other hand, is very unusual in the shipping industry. Mr Sanguinetti cited industry protocols aimed at preventing intruders from boarding ships.
“Obviously the risk cannot be completely eliminated, and there are cases – as we have seen in this case – where people manage to get on board,” he said. “Then other guidelines apply.”
If stowaways are discovered, the captain has an obligation to report them to the authorities, as the captain did in this case, but also to ensure that they are treated humanely and well looked after on the ship.
However, when the crew feels threatened, the captain follows a procedure whereby the crew is locked in a “citadel” – a safe place where they can control the ship’s movements and communicate with the authorities.
The events at the Andromeda Nave took place amid a wider debate on migration and asylum seekers in the UK. Home Secretary Priti Patel has vowed to overhaul what she calls the “broken” asylum system after illegal crossings of the English Channel increased in late summer.
Refugee rights advocates said that while stowaways’ motives remained unclear, events on Sunday highlighted the need for more legal routes for asylum seekers.
“Many refugees are taking dangerous risks to find refuge in the UK because of the lack of safe and legal ways to get here,” said Mariam Kemple Hardy, campaign director for Refugee Action.
Some are using criminal smugglers to get into the country, and the government has yet to restart a refugee resettlement program that has been suspended since March, she added.
Mr Sanguinetti said the UK government had sent a clear message “that ships and seafarers must not be drawn into the crisis of asylum seekers or economic migrants, however desperate or sad they may be.”
“This is a separate humanitarian issue that governments need to study and address in order for ships to continue trading around the world,” he said.