COVID-19 Pandemic Can Spark a Rise in Sea Piracy
Sun, April 18, 2021

COVID-19 Pandemic Can Spark a Rise in Sea Piracy


Many countries continue to patrol and work with global partners to fight piracy at sea during the coronavirus. While sea piracy attacks and other incidents have declined in the past years, new reports show seafarers face continuing threats from pirates and armed robbers. A report from the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) International Maritime Bureau (IMB) revealed 47 attacks in the first three months of 2020–up from 38 in the same period last year. Pirates were also reported to have boarded 37 ships in the first quarter of 2020.

Sea Piracy: Facts

For many of us, pirates are only characters in books and films we consumed as children The truth is they are completely real and dangerous. A 2019 report showed a decrease in global incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea across the first nine months of 2019. Despite this, the IMB emphasized the need for shipmasters and owners to continue reporting all actual, attempted, and suspected incidents of sea piracy. This is to make sure that an accurate picture of these attacks is known and taken against these criminals before the incidents further escalate.

According to Seapower Magazine, the official publication of the US Navy League, the IMB reported 119 incidents to its Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) compared to 156 in 2018. The incidents included four vessels hijacked; 95 vessels boarded; 10 attempted attacks; and 10 vessels fired upon. The report also indicated that despite reduced attack numbers, incidents involving weapons remain constant, with 23 knife-related and 35 gun-related incidents reported compared to 25 and 37 in 2018. “These statistics confirm IMB’s concerns over continued threats to the safety and security of seafarers,” the IMB said in a statement. 



Previous research showed that the main reasons for piracy are not exclusive to crimes against ships. Factors such as social acceptance, lack of legal consequence, chronic unemployment, and opportunity all play a role in supporting a criminal enterprise. A 2010 study conducted by the One Earth Future Foundation revealed that piracy drains between $7 billion and $12 billion from the international economy annually. A huge amount of this came from Asia—after all, 41% of the world’s pirate attacks between 1995 and 2013 occurred there. 

According to Time, an American weekly news magazine and news website, 80% of total sea piracy incidents across the world occur against anchored ships, with thieves looting equipment, crew members’ belongings, and any cash found aboard. Some pirates were unfortunate enough to be caught by the authorities. Six Somali pirates, for instance, were subsequently detained by the European Union Naval Force in 2017. They were transferred to the Seychelles and charged with “committing an act of piracy” where they face up to 30 years’ imprisonment if convicted.

Reports showed that they attacked a container ship approximately 280 nautical miles east of Mogadishu. “This dramatic incident, alongside our 2017 figures, demonstrates that Somali pirates retain the capability and intent to launch attacks against merchant vessels hundreds of miles from their coastline,” Pottengal Mukundan, Director of IMB, said.



Sea Piracy Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Recent reports revealed that sea piracy increased in the first quarter of 2020, mostly in the traditional hotspots of Malacca Strait, the Bay of Bengal, and the Sulu and Celebes Seas. In the first months of this year, the number of pirate attacks and armed robberies at sea was three times the number at the same time last year. With the impending economic disaster from the COVID-19 pandemic, experts fear that crime at will be inevitable.

Countries, particularly those that are in Southeast Asia, will tumble from near-constant growth over the last decade to zero economic growth. The effects may even worsen given some nations’ poor testing capacities. Forecasts revealed a negative 3.5% growth in Indonesia and a negative 4.6% growth for Malaysia. Even if public health capacity proves sufficient in some countries, experts say that the economic effects will precipitate unavoidable political strife and fewer budgets, and people turn to piracy when economic opportunities elsewhere are scarce. 

According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, 2020 has seen a 24% increase in pirate attacks and attempted attacks over the same period in 2019. For instance, the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador was attacked by eight armed raiders last April. The pirates boarded the container ship Fouma and opened several shipping containers. While no one was hurt, they took unknown items before escaping in two speedboats.

The pirate attack at Guayaquil hints that pirates are getting more active during this pandemic. Most piracy is nothing more than petty theft or kidnapping for an expected ransom. It is unlikely that they are an existential threat to any country and dissipate with economic recovery. However, there are rebel groups or terrorist outfits that turn piracy into their main revenue stream. This makes them dangerous and warrants preventative action. For instance, rebel groups in Myanmar or the southern Philippines use ransomed crew members or whole ships to fund their militancy.

Thus, experts are concerned about what will happen next after the Fouma attack. Evidence suggests the pirates had detailed advance knowledge of the ship’s cargo, showing that they planned the attack. Piracy attacks will affect poor countries with weak governments the most. Pirates usually raise money for their land-based battles by stealing from passing ships. Militant groups in Nigeria, for instance, steal oil off tanker ships and resell it on the black market.

Attacks like these can make nations weaker because most of them will focus on immediate concerns during this pandemic. This will create more opportunities for pirates. While recent statistics suggest an increase for 2020, global piracy still isn’t as high as it was during the Somali peak from 2009 to 2012. However, this crisis can make desperate people turn to piracy or ramp up their existing efforts to survive.

According to The Diplomat, an international online news magazine covering politics, society, and culture in the Asia-Pacific region, regional states’ respective coast guards need to plan for a near-term surge in piracy. For instance, the Trilateral Cooperation Agreement between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines proved useful in cutting down piracy and kidnappings in the Sulu and Celebes Seas that connect all three countries. Perhaps, efforts like these would be helpful in addressing the problem.