Stowaways On Ships: Classification And On Board Measures

Wikipedia defines a stowaway as a person who secretly boards a vehicle, such as a ship, an aircraft, a train, cargo truck or bus, in order to travel without paying and without being detected.

Individuals stow away on ships for a variety of reasons but mainly they do so for the following reasons:

  • To leave a region of conflict (for example, the current exodus from a lot of conflict ridden countries)
  • Social or economic deprivation (leaving a poor country to find more opportunities in a richer country)
  • Stability, opportunity, better quality of life (related to the point above)

It is known that the likelihood of a stowaway managing to get himself/herself onboard is higher in the case of a poor/less developed country than in a developed one. Whatever intention it is done with, it is a problem that has to be dealt with the shipboard staff very tactfully, considering the illegality of the situation, the legal battles that may ensue and the human rights angle of the stowaway involved.

Image Credits: UK P&I Club

Stowaways can be classified under the following categories:


A refugee is a person forced to escape their country of domicile, attempting the escape for reasons of war, civil unrest or religious persecution. The term forced is used because in this case they have no choice or a really bad choice for fear of their life or of the state of the country. Recently, there has been a mass exodus of people from certain countries who fear persecution and hence try to make their way out of the country any which way and under dire circumstances

Economic Migrants

This category may consist of people who wish to leave their country of domicile for the sole purpose of leading a life of higher quality in another country. For example, it is seen in many developed countries that a lot of daily workers originally belong to another nation

Asylum Seekers

This is the case where an individual seeks asylum in a country without the hovering fear of repatriation. The idea is to avoid persecution in their home country which they may be trying to avoid because of political reasons such as an unwanted uprising against the Government or something along those lines

Illegal Immigrants

Illegal immigrants want to forcibly make their way into another country without being conspicuous to the border control and immigration authorities for reasons that might be undefined per se. It could range from any of the above. The idea here is that the stowaway has chosen to enter the country without adhering to the proper channels of entry into a country, undetected. Stowaways are usually treated as illegal immigrants at the port of disembarkation in accordance with the legislation of the countries involved. However, stowaways whop request asylum should be treated in accordance with the relevant UN Conventions


This is the worst case and the most worrying of all for the simple fact that the person might have chosen to be a stowaway for engaging in unlawful activities. They could be involved with the transportation o drugs or other such illegal activities. These stowaways might be in groups and pose a threat to the ship’s crew sometimes seeking to make profit through obscene demands

P& I Club Cover for Stowaways

Insurance cover for ship operators is provided by P&I Clubs for any loss and/or liabilities pertaining to stowaways. Mostly, costs are covered by the Club (sometimes aside from those involving the diversion expenses; varies in the clauses depending on the Club policies). There is also a clause stating that the insurance claim may be reduced or nullified if it has been deemed by the Club that adequate steps were not taken to protect the ship against stowaways. As shipowners as well as other ship staff will be aware, the costs of disembarkation and repatriation of stowaways onboard their vessels have to be incurred by the shipowner/operator. The costs involved in such a case may be the following:

  • Fines relating to stowaways onboard
  • Victualling expenses (Cost of food and other stores for the stowaway)
  • Costs of guards employed to prevent stowaway from escaping
  • Clothing, linen and beddings for the stowaway
  • Embassy fees
  • Detention expenses
  • Flights, accommodation and other repatriation costs for stowaway
  • Expenses incurred by agents associated with stowaways

These costs may normally be covered by the Club or the insurance claim may be reduced or nullified if it has been deemed by the Club that adequate steps were not taken to protect the ship against stowaways. The above points are also known to stowaways and hence they try to board vessels for obvious reasons of comfort. Even if they don’t make it to the country they are trying to go to, evidently they are well taken care of!

Diversion Expenses

These costs are covered by the P&I Club and it is known to the ship owner if this shall be entertained and covered by the Club. In any case, in such an event that the vessel has to be diverted to land, the appropriate authorities must be contacted beforehand to confirm whether the diversion is deemed to be reasonable. The contract of carriage of cargo might be in violation due to the diversion along with myriad legalities which is why prior consent and permission must be taken from the appropriate Authorities. It may be necessary for members to arrange additional Ship owners Liability (SOL) insurance cover to ensure that their side is covered and protected in case of a breach with regard to the contract of carriage

Checklists and Questionnaires

Questionnaires, pertaining to stowaways, must be placed onboard (filed) in case an interrogation has to be carried in the event of discovering a stowaway onboard. The checklists are kept in place as guidance to the Master to ensure that the best possible action is taken to avoid the entry of stowaways altogether. These might be made available in a variety of languages and can be sent to the appropriate Authorities in case a stowaway situation arises. The questionnaires are designed with the help or ARM International in Durban from years of experience and case studies

Summary of responsibilities under the IMO Guidelines

Shipowners and Masters have specific responsibilities under IMO Guidelines on the Allocation of Responsibilities to Seek the Successful Resolution of Stowaway Cases. They are summarised below:

  • Determine the port of embarkation of the stowaway
  • Establish the identity and nationality of the stowaway
  • Prepare a statement with all the relevant information with regard to the stowaway for the appropriate Authorities
  • Notify the existence of the stowaway and related details to the ship owner, appropriate Authorities, port of embarkation port of call and Flag State
  • DO NOT depart from planned voyage to seek disembarkation of the stowaway to any country unless repatriation has been arranged and permitted, unless there are security and humanitarian reasons, such as injury or illness
  • Handover stowaway to the appropriate Authorities at the next port of call
  • Ensure health, security, welfare and safety of the stowaway until disembarkation

Shipowner/operator Responsibilities

  • Inform appropriate Authorities with all info about the stowaway at the port of call, port of embarkation and Flag State
  • Comply with any removal directions made by the Authorities at the port of embarkation

Onboard Measures


Any violent behavior from the side of the stowaway must be considered. In this case, the safety of the crew must be taken into account; the crew must take full security precautions in this regard (for example, locking their cabin doors and not partake in unnecessary instigation of the stowaway by staying aloof, apolitical etc). A thorough search of the stowaway must be carried out for any sharp objects or objects that may cause harm. In this sense, the search should be strict and not violate the stowaway against their wishes, something along the lines of airport authorities! The stowaway must be kept at a secure location such as a cabin or store room to reduce the risk of escape thus inviting more legal headaches in case of an attempt to jump overboard. The more the number of stowaways, the more hectic this is. Extra precaution must be taken when approaching the port of call when these stowaways might try to jump overboard therefore incurring fines (on the side of the vessel) from the Authorities

Health and Welfare

The mental and physical health of the stowaway must be monitored. Risk of infectious diseases must be taken into account. Cine the stowaway to their quarters and keep contact with the crew to the bare minimum essential to survival, separating all crockeries and beddings (etc) used by the stowaway. Condition and treatment if administered must recorded


While the anger and resentment from having a stowaway onboard might tempt the ship personnel to put him to work, this should be avoided. This is to prevent any suspicion from the port authorities as to how the stowaway gained access, prevent claims of wages and in general, keep the stowaway content till he is not a responsibility of the ship owner anymore!

The whole stowaway situation is a dicey one and as mentioned, must be handled tactfully to avoid any unnecessary costs or legal trouble and associated expenses

Reference: Maritime Legislation & Shipboard Management for Deck Officers by Capt. Naik and Capt. Dubey

Disclaimer: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendation on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

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