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Stowaways have been a problem to shipowners for about as long as there have been ships in the sea. In the early days of sailing ships and looser maritime legislation, this was a relatively minor problem. This probably had to due with the fact that the ships were smaller in comparison to today’s standards, and were comparatively heavily crewed. Thus the chances for a stowaway to get on board and go undiscovered for any length of time were fairly small.

Also in that age, the concept of “human rights” was not what it is today, and any stowaways that were found often became involuntary members of the crew. There was, therefore, little incentive to become an unpaying passenger on a merchant ship. Today, however, ships have become ever larger, the maritime world has become increasingly regulated, and the issue of stowaways has become a major problem.

Several reasons why stowaways have become more of a problem

There are really several reasons why stowaways have become more of a problem.

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The real driving factor is really an economic one (Wiener). With all of the political and economic strife in the world today, there is a huge population of people who are just tired of being on the rock bottom of the economic ladder, and are desperate for a better life in a different place. This is really the basic reason why someone would want to spend a week or so crammed into a stuffy container or other similarly uncomfortable accommodations in order to get from wherever they are to somewhere else.

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It isn’t because they just didn’t have the money for a plane ticket, but it is the fact that they are being lured by the prospect of a better life. They are willing to leave their homelands and endure uncertain conditions in order to get there.

There is, of course, the possibility of applying to another country, such as the United States or any other world economic superpower, for admission as an immigrant. This is a very long and difficult process, and the likelihood of actually getting in is slim. Even if it was possible, few third world citizens can actually afford transportation overseas, let alone find and afford housing, meals, and so forth, once they get there. The fact of the matter is that may desperately poor people who would like to immigrate to another country simply lack the resources to make the trip legally. Therefore, alternative measures, such as stealing rides on merchant ships, become very attractive (Wiener).

The ever increasing size of today’s merchant ships

Another component is the ever increasing size of today’s merchant ships, coupled with the gradual decrease in the size of the crews sailing in them. The modern merchant ship has a staggering array of nooks and crannies that are perfect for a person to hide in. Even with the best crew, there simply aren’t enough of them to adequately search an entire ship during the short time that they are in port (Wiener). If, by chance, the ship’s crew does become wise to some of the favorite hiding spots, the creative mind of a man driven by desperation can usually conspire to come up with something new.

For example, there was an AB on the LNG Leo (my ship this past summer) that had an unusual story. He had an acquaintance who worked on a grain ship that had found a couple stowaways buried in one of the holds. Apparently, they had somehow found their way on board and burrowed into the cargo of grain, breathing through a couple straws that just broke the surface of the cargo. Unfortunately for them, the cargo had shifted slightly during the voyage, burying the stowaways alive (Pegram).

The container revolution

The container revolution has added significantly to this problem. Containers are, of course, packed and sealed well before it ever gets near the ship, and they can come aboard full of stowaways without the crew having any idea that they are there. It is only when the occupants of the container try to get out and get some fresh air or food is it discovered stowaways are on board (Wiener). Of course, when the stowaways enter the container, they have no idea where on the ship that container will end up.

They could luck out and get in an outside tier on deck, where they could cut a hole in the side of the container to get some air, or to go out on deck in search of food. This obviously can create a problem for the crew, who are now faced with a roaming crowd of stowaways on deck. The other possibility is for the container to be buried deep in the hold, where it is impossible to escape from the container. This is good for the crew, but creates a big problem for the stowaways if they did not bring sufficient supplies (“Security”). There are also many reasons why stowaways create problems for shipowner. Again, the major problem is, of course, money.

The United States Immigration and Naturalization Act

According to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Act, stowaways who do not seek political asylum are considered “excludable aliens” and are prohibited from coming ashore (Mercante 2B). Also, they must be deported immediately back to their country of origin, with no right to a hearing to determine their status. The shipowner is responsible for these repatriation expenses, and also must pay the cost of detaining the stowaways from the time of entering the U.S. to the time of departure. This usually includes a hotel room, food, medical treatment, interpreters if needed, and a 24-hour guard. Should there be any violations of the Act, such as a stowaway escaping the ship while it is in port or failing to deport a stowaway, ships are fined $3,000 (Mercante 2B).

The real snag here is when the stowaway seeks political asylum, which any halfway intelligent person would. The 1967 United Nations Declaration on Territorial Asylum states that “no person shall be subjected to measures such as rejection at the frontier or, if he has already entered the territory in which he seeks asylum, expulsion or compulsory return to any State where he may be subjected to persecution (“Note on Stowaway”).” Further, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) required, until recently, that the shipowner house, feed, and guard the potential immigrant for the entire duration of the hearing, which could last for months. The total cost to the shipowner in this situation could reach $400,000 per person, a figure that could easily wipe out a good part of the carrier’s profits for that voyage (Freudmann 1A).

It is for this reason that the shipowners have been complaining to congress about the high cost of stowaways. In fact, some have filed suit against the government. In a recent case, four Romanian stowaways were found on board the M/V European Senator, owned by Dia Navigation Company. The stowaways were interviewed by an INS officer and found to be “excludable aliens” under the U.S. code. However, the four Romanians applied for asylum, thus giving Dia Navigation the responsibility for housing, guarding, and feeding the four men for the duration of the asylum hearing. During the detention, the stowaways were found to speak no English, so a Romanian interpreter had to be hired so that the application papers could be completed.

Also, one of the stowaways went on a hunger strike and threatened to commit suicide, thus requiring him to be confined in irons in his own room. Dia Navigation requested that the INS take custody of the detainees, but they refused. Eventually a decision was reached, but Dia was stuck with a bill for 54 days of detention time, a cost of $127,580. Faced with this, Dia filed suit against the INS, claiming that the policy requiring shipping companies to pay for the detention of stowaways was a violation of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Further, they claimed recovery of these expenses under the Tucker Act and the Administrative Procedures Act (“Dia Navigation”). A lower court rejected Dia’s claim, but they were at least partially vindicated on appeal.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with Dia on the count that the INS’s policy requiring shipowners to house stowaways for the duration of their hearings was unlawful, but they did not feel that Dia deserved compensation for their expenses. This case has been carefully watched by other shipping companies facing the problem of stowaways on their ships (“Dia Navigation”). This particular problem of monetary costs of stowaways to shipping companies is actually somewhat worse in Canada, where ships are fined $7,000 (Canadian) per stowaway entering a Canadian port, even if they are seeking asylum (Freudmann 1A).

This is also combined with the fact that Canada has a fairly liberal refugee law which allows a large portion of asylum seekers in to the country. This system creates a lose-lose situation for the shipowners, as the Canadian policy lures in refugees, and fines the shipowners for brining them in. Increasingly fed up with this, some shipping companies have threaten to stop calling in Canadian ports unless their legal system is changed (“Maersk” 37).

The risks

Stowaways not only pose a financial burden to shipowners, they can also be a serious risk to the ship and the cargo. The biggest danger is the risk of fire, especially if the stowaways happen to smoke. If a stowaway, living in a cargo hold full of flammable materials, happens to drop a cigarette from his hiding place, catastrophe could result. For example, stowaways have been found smoking near containers clearly labeled as containing explosives (Freudmann 1A). Stowaways are also a danger to the crew.

In the wake of several well-publicized murders of stowaways at sea, the possibility of a stowaway going aboard a ship armed is increasing. Again, the issue of reduced crews comes into play, as a band of twenty or so well armed asylum-seekers can be more than a match to a ship’s crew. Also, ships nowadays are not designed to carry extra passengers, so finding accommodations and food for a few unexpected guests could be difficult. Even if this could be accomplished, some of the crew would have to be dedicated to guarding the stowaways, further straining an already minimal crew (Wiener).

Shipping companies, faced with a very high cost and risk from the stowaways, have put some pressure on their officers to find and remove all illegal passengers. This has, unfortunately, resulted in some crews actually throwing stowaways overboard in an attempt to escape port fines. In a recent case, the Taiwanese crew of the Maersk Dubai, under charter to Yang Ming, were accused of throwing three Romanian stowaways overboard while their ship was en route to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The officers are accused of murder allegedly motivated by the prospect of the $7000 fine being levied against him or his company (“Maersk” 37).

Maersk and Yang Ming

What is interesting is that the company officials for both Maersk and Yang Ming are both claiming that they do not pressure their crew to get rid of stowaways in such a manner and, further, have strict policies concerning the humane treatment of stowaways. They also say that any fines against the ship are covered by an insurance policy, and that neither the ship or the crew would have to pay them (“Maersk” 38). That being the case, the question is raised as to why exactly stowaways are being thrown overboard, not only on the Maersk Dubai, but in ships around the world. Yet again, we return to the issue of economics. There are, unfortunately, quite a few ships in the world that operate with the absolute bare minimum spent on the hiring and upkeep of their crews.

A lot of these crews are from former Communist countries such as the Ukraine and other economically chaotic countries. The crews, already working for near-subsistence wages, take a dim view of an unwanted guest taking food from their tables (Atherton). Finally, there is the point of the liability of the ship in the event that the crew is injured in a confrontation with a stowaway. An injured crew member could have a claim against the shipowners, as it could be argued that the crew member are entitled to a warranty that they are properly trained for their duties. If the crew are not trained to apprehend stowaways, the crew members could conceivably recover under the premise that the ship is considered unseaworthy.

Training is necessary

Several shipping companies have come to realize that training is necessary, and have begun special programs. This is, however, only a reactionary approach, and does not get to the root of a complex problem (Wiener). Shipowners are, unfortunately, the victims in a lose-lose situation. They do not posses the resources to find and deal with illegal passengers, but are heavily penalized if they are found. Shipowners should not have to bear brunt of keeping, guarding, and transporting stowaways, as this is obviously very costly. There have been, finally, some steps in the right direction.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the bill H.R. 2202, which relieves a lot of the costs to the shipowner plagued with unwanted guests. The bill will basically guarantee the removal of the stowaway for the ship and into INS custody within a period of 72 hours. Also, it limits the time the ship is liable for detention costs for the stowaways to fifteen business days (“Security”). This is, however, just the beginning of the solution to the problem of stowaways. The world will be, unfortunately, in a state of economic turmoil for the foreseeable future, so the threat of stowaways will not go away.

There are, at present, efforts by governments and shipping companies to combat the problem. Bills such as H.R. 2202 and the actions by Maersk in pressuring government action are definitely steps in the right direction. Hopefully, there will be more efforts like this around the world, and the danger of stowaways will continue to diminish.


  1. Atherton, Tony. “Story of Murdered Stowaways Makes Riveting Drama.” URL:http://www.ottowacitizen…une13/ent/ent5/ent5.html (6 Nov. 1996)
  2. “Dia Navigation Company, Ltd v. Pomeroy, et al.” The Villanova Center for Information Law and Policy. URL:…3d/opinions/94a0/56p.htm (14 Nov. 1996)
  3. Freudmann, Avia. “Ship Lines Say Canada Encourages Stowaways.” Journal of Commerce. 3 July, 1996: 1A “Maersk Captain, Officers Charged in Murders of Stowaways at Sea.” Professional Mariner. August/September 1996: 37-38
  4. Mercante, James E. “Sea Trials.” Journal of Commerce. 3 May, 1996: 2B “Note on Stowaway Asylum-Seekers.” Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection. URL: (6 Nov. 1996)
  5. Pegram, Jack. Personal interview. June 1996 “Security” URL: (6 Nov. 1996)
  6. Wiener, Cary Robert. “Maritime Security: No Longer a Luxury But a Legal Necessity.” URL: (6 Nov. 1996)

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Stowaways. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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