Piracy and armed robberies are persistent and continuous maritime crimes, affecting the safe navigation of ships.

Asia has been considered as one of the hot spots of piracy and armed robbery against ships. In fact, there was a spate of incidents in Asia in the early 2000s, particularly in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Malacca Strait was designated as a “war zone” by an insurance group from 2005 to 2006. It was a major threat to the safety of seafarers, safe navigation of ships and development of transportation. It could give a negative impact to the trade and economic development. Against this situation, Asian countries took initiative to combat these maritime crimes, through regional cooperation. ReCAAP is one of the responses of Asian countries.

The objective of ReCAAP is to share timely and accurate information on which are the incident prone areas and what is the modus operandi of these crimes. Timely and accurate information allows the coastal state to conduct patrol and strengthen surveillance. It also allows the shipping companies to make better risk assessment, take preventive measures and enhance vigilance.

ReCAAP is an Asian initiative, in the sense that the Asian countries demonstrated their ownership to address these crimes by themselves. But the agreement is open to other countries, which have maritime interest in this region. Therefore, since 2009 four European countries, Australia and the US have joined ReCAAP. These countries are sharing their expertise and experience on maritime law enforcement with Asian countries.

ReCAAP is also promoting an incident reporting and response framework which is adapted to the Asian situation. In Asia, 90% of incidents take place within territorial waters. They are armed robberies against ships and not piracy at high seas. Only the coastal State has the jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute the criminals; therefore, we advise ships to report incidents immediately to the nearest coastal State, which should respond to the incident. It is a shared responsibility between coastal States and shipping industry.

In addition, ReCAAP assesses the severity or nature of incidents. While the number of incidents itself is important, it does not explain the exact picture of the situation. We need to know how serious each incident is for seafarers and shipping companies. While we should take all incidents seriously, one incident of kidnap for ransom is more serious and dangerous than one incident of petty theft. Therefore, we assess the severity of each incident, by considering violence and economic factors, and classify each incident in one of four Categories.

Since 2007, the number of incidents has been fluctuating, until 2016 when we saw a very significant decrease. There were 203 incidents in 2015 but they went down to 87 incidents in 2016. In 2018, the number of incidents further went down to 76 incidents, which is the lowest number since 2007. In terms of severity of incidents, the number of the most serious cases of Category 1 is quite limited and most of the incidents are less severe cases, such as Categories 3 and 4. Category 1 cases are incidents such as hijacking of tugboats for resale, oil cargo theft, or abduction of crew for ransom which are mostly done by organized criminal groups. Categories 3 and 4 incidents are mostly of opportunistic nature.

To identify the common characteristics of incidents in Asia, we have analyzed the data of more than 1,500 incidents of the past. According to the analysis, 90% of incidents in Asia were armed robberies against ships, while piracy incidents represented only 10%. Perpetrators commonly used knives and machetes when they were armed, and the use of firearms was quite limited. In 81% of incidents, the crew was not injured or there was no report of injury. Commonly stolen items were ship stores while nothing was stolen in 32% of incidents. Tankers and bulk carriers got attacked the most, and 80% of incidents took place during hours of darkness.

From this analysis, we can say that the incidents in Asia are quite different from the incidents in other regions, for example, in the Gulf of Aden, where most of the cases are piracy at high seas, pirates are heavily armed and their main purpose is kidnap for ransom. This difference should be taken into account when considering how to protect from and how to respond to the crimes in each region.

From January to October 2019, the number of incidents has continued to decrease with 61 total incidents, compared to 70 incidents last year. Regarding the location of incidents, there was an improvement at ports and anchorages in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. However, there are areas of concern for 2019, such as the remaining risk of abduction of crew in the Sulu-Celebes Seas and the increase of incidents on sailing vessels in Singapore Strait.

Concerning the abduction of crew for ransom in the Sulu-Celebes Sea and waters off eastern Sabah, a total of 19 actual incidents and 11 attempted incidents were reported from 2016 to 2019. Most of these incidents took place in the waters between Mindanao of the Philippines and Sabah of Malaysia. Most of the abduction are claimed by Abu Sayyaf Group, which is a terrorist group in the Philippines. The group used to kidnap people for ransom on land or from resort islands in the past. But since 2016, they have expanded the kidnapping to the crew of ships. They have abducted crew from slow speed and low freeboard ships, particularly the tugboats and fishing boats. Since 2016, they had abducted 78 crew from ships; among them, 65 crew are already released, 10 crew were killed or died and 3 crew are still in captivity.

However, the number of abduction incidents has significantly decreased year by year. It has decreased from 12 actual incidents in 2016 to 2 incidents in 2019. This improvement is attributed to the persistent efforts of the littoral States, particularly the Philippine authorities, and enhanced vigilance of shipping companies. To raise awareness of the maritime community on the abduction of crew incidents, ReCAAP ISC issued an Advisory in 2016 and produced a Guidance in July 2019.

In conclusion, I would like to share our advice to the shipping industry.
First, we encourage the shipping industry to enhance situation awareness by getting the latest information of incidents.
Secondly, when an incident occurs, we recommend the ship to report it immediately to the nearest coastal State.
Finally, all of us in the maritime community have a common goal and a shared responsibility to keep our seas safe for maritime transportation.

Above text is an edited version of Mr. Kuroki’s presentation during the 2019 SAFETY4SEA Singapore Forum.

You may view his video presentation herebelow

The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of  SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.

About Masafumi Kuroki, Executive Director, ReCAAP ISC

Mr. Kuroki has served as Ambassador both in Asia and Europe, and has acquired balanced judgement and coordination skill through his over-forty-years of foreign service career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Japan. His experience as the head of diplomatic mission is invaluable to lead the multinational staff at the ReCAAP ISC. The various key appointments he held during his stint in MOFA Japan included Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Serbia, and to Montenegro (2013-2016), Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Cambodia (2009-2013), Minister to Embassy of Japan in Indonesia (2004- 2006), Malaysia (1998-2001) and France (1995-1998). He held the appointment at other agencies, such as the Vice-President of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) (2006-2009) and Deputy Director-General for Trade and Economic Cooperation Bureau of Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (2002-2004). He was born in Miyazaki of Japan, and is married to Elisabeth with two daughters and one son.