The rise in acts of maritime piracy during COVID-19

22nd October 2020

As has now been widely documented, COVID-19 has intruded in all aspects of life from the economy to the psychology of society. Jobs have been made redundant, freedoms have been restricted and supply-chains have been altered to adapt to a world in a pandemic. One side effect of this, particularly in Africa and South-East Asia, has been a rise in piracy and armed robbery against ships as those badly affected by the societal impacts of COVID-19 seek to take advantage of the changes implemented in maritime commerce.  This article will look into what aspects and where piracy is rising and why this might have been affected by COVID-19.

Whilst piracy saw its ‘golden age’ around the 17th Century it is still very much an issue today and prevalent in the Gulf of Guinea, the Horn of Africa and South-East Asia. A correlation between decreased economic activity and increased piracy has been reported mirroring research conducted by the RAND Cooperation who found that people turn to piracy when economic opportunities are scarce.1 This has manifested in a significant uptick in pirate activity in the tradition hotspots around the globe such as the Straits of Malacca and Singapore in which authorities have witnessed piracy cases doubled from last year.2 Although it could be argued that the Horn of Africa and Somalia brought global attention to the issue of modern-day piracy around the dawn of the last decade it is Western Africa and the Gulf of Guinea that has become the continents new hotspot. The nature of piracy in this region has also changed and has seen pirates begin to target crews instead of cargo. This trend was first spotted in 2019 with the International Maritime Bureau reporting an increase in kidnapping of 50% compared to 2018, calling it an ‘unprecedented rise’.3 This trajectory has continued into 2020 with the organisation seeing a 40% increase in kidnappings in the region in the first nine months of 2020. In fact, the Gulf of Guinea now accounts for 95% of all global maritime kidnappings!4

So what impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on the renewed prevalence of piracy and the difficulties in combatting it? As briefly mentioned previously decreased economic opportunities often results in a rise in piracy activity. This issue has also been raised by The Diplomat who warned that economic disaster from COVID-19, aggravating high rates of unemployment has made increased crime in Southeast Asian Seas ‘inevitable’.5 This has been referred to by some as the ‘desperation factor’ which drives some to pursue economic opportunities on the other side of the law.6 Further to this, country’s which are at higher risk of dealing with piracy issues, due in part to often weak security and lack of judicial maritime enforcement, have also had to re-prioritise where money is spent during the pandemic with budgets from other areas requisitioned for the COVID-19 response which has strengthened the catalyst caused by COVID-19.7 One example of this has been in Nigeria where emergency budget adjustments have seen funds taken away from government DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation and Re-Integration) programmes focusing on combatants in the Delta, which in all likelihood will cause a rise in piracy and armed robbery.8 COVID-19 has also influenced the trend towards maritime kidnappings that has been seen during this period due to both the process of ‘oil bunkering’ (keeping oil offshore in ships) and oil prices having dropped due to lack of demand whilst countries are in lockdown.9 This has made the risk vs reward of siphoning oil too low to consider for many with kidnapping proving to be a more lucrative activity.10

It is also important to consider the fact that COVID-19 itself is an infectious virus which has led to certain measures and restrictions being imposed to manage the spread of the virus that has put extra stress on those working on the ships. These restrictions will inevitably create hindrances for the ship’s crew which can then be exploited by pirates. As part of this, during the pandemic, seamen have found that they are needed to work longer at sea whilst receiving less time on shore leave, increasing stress and fatigue.11 This in turn could result in the making of simple mistakes, such as missing key steps in security protocols, which can then be seized upon by potential pirates.12  In addition to this, the virus has also created gaps in the protection offered in the seas within pirate hotspots with the French Navy having to suspend Mission Corymbe, designed to protect French economic interests in the region around the Gulf of Guinea, due to COVID-19; the first time since the establishment of the mission in 1990 that a French naval vessel had not been in the region.13

Whilst there are numerous organisations and networks across the globe designed to thwart piracy, such as the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre, as well as regionally specific programmes, such as the EU’s Operation Atalanta in the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea Inter-Regional Network (supported by the G7) and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia it would appear that the trend towards increased pirate activity which began in 2019 has catalysed in 2020 due to COVID-19. This accelerated increase is most likely due to multiple factors influenced by COVID-19 such as the lack of financial opportunities and the tightening of restrictions. Whilst it is key that countries reprioritise to combat the current threat of COVID-19 this should not be done at the expense of long-term goals which will affect the continued development of societies such as the defunding of DDR programmes. Piracy will inevitably rise in hotspot areas as the economic impact of COVID-19 is continued to be felt as it is human nature for people to need to survive in whatever way they can when no other opportunities present themselves, for this reason, it is expected that the upward trend towards piracy will not decrease anytime soon.