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Filipino seamen caught in piratical crossfire

By Carlo Osi
First Posted 20:46:00 05/03/2009

Filed Under: Sea piracy, Overseas Employment

WASHINGTON D.C., United States??If there is any one group that?s severely victimized and traumatized by the onslaught of high seas piracy by Somali pirates, it?s the hapless Filipino seafarers who work the ships.

It has been said that Filipinos comprise about one-third of the total seafarers in the world today. If a fraction of those ships fall into the hands of Somali piracy gangs, then a lot of Filipinos would be caught in the crossfire.

Three weeks ago, around 105 Filipino seamen are said to be held hostage in seven ships by these lawless Somali pirates. Fortunately, some have been released recently. The prayed-for release of those still captive is slow and painstaking as the Philippine government is dependent on the manning agency which hired and deployed them to these ships.

The Philippine government says that it?s coordinating with foreign governments and ship owners for the crews? release but it?s hard to actually determine how far these efforts will go. The Philippine Navy cannot launch any rescue attempt because of the distance and the lack of military might. It seems that these captive Filipinos are just waiting for a miracle, or is it the payment of ransom?

Sadly, these Filipino sailors are sitting ducks waiting for an international rescue that may not likely come. The international attention on Somali piracy has dwindled in the last few weeks after the brave rescue of the American ship captain, the emergence of the H1N1 flu virus, and President Barack Obama?s upcoming 100 days in office. As media shifts attention and refocuses to more pressing issues of the day, so does the priority of world powers. These days, piracy in the high seas is only an important footnote.

Filipino seafarers and Somali pirates have encountered each other in years past. In 2006, there were about 227 Filipino seafarers who were abducted in the Gulf of Aden. There are certainly more of these encounters in the 1990s and early 2000s. One wonders whether these are the same pirates who abducted the seafarers in 2009. It?s also not hard to imagine that some of these sailors may have been held for ransom twice.
A third of global shipping crew

In recent decades, Filipinos comprised the highest concentration of ship workers as waiters and bartenders in cruise ships or seafarers running cargo or oil vessels. They number over 350,000 crew members today, up from about 250,000 in 1996 and around 82,000 in 1977. Japanese cargo ships are normally populated by Philippine seamen. Ship owners favor Filipino crews as they are willing to work for low pay, which is still considerably large if compared to domestic wages.

It has not always been like this. Filipino seafarers did not dominate the world market for professional workers on board the ships trotting the world. But seafaring has lost its attractiveness as a profession in developed countries.

It has been a good life for these sailors. They travel the world at the company?s expense, able to earn a sizeable income that couldn?t possibly be matched in the Philippines, and experience new situations that would otherwise not be available to them. Seafaring in general allows the sailors to provide relatively well for their families.

But not everything is milk and honey at the high seas. Problems abound at every corner. There are times when the crew members are not paid their salaries for months or don?t have sufficient food, prompting them to commence protest actions on board the ships just so that their employment contracts are respected. Some Filipino sailors are also lured by the unknown in the various ports of call and end up being HIV-positive weeks or months later.

Moreover, some local manpower agencies which recruit the crew do not pay or remit to their families the bulk payment made by the European or North American ship owners, thus being victimized by one of their own. The lack of respect by foreign deck officers and captains is another epidemic in the industry, as are the ships? substandard conditions in so-called ?sweat ships.? The risks and perils of the seas likewise come with the territory.

Somali Pirates as Kings

The ?patrolling? by Somali pirates along the Gulf of Aden doesn?t help one bit. They further complicate the already deplorable situation of seafaring. These pirates have been at it for some time now, but have only attained international attention when they held Captain Richard Philips of the United States. One good thing that resulted from this high seas drama is that other countries or groups of countries such as France, the European Union, Canada, China, and a few African countries have sent ships to combat the crisis.

It?s gruesome to note that these Somali pirates are treated as kings and heroes in their homeland. Perhaps they are likened to piratical Robin Hoods who steal?more specifically take for ransom?from the rich countries and companies to provide for their starving families. The more desperate the country is, the more desperate its people. The more desperation in the people, the more attacks on the assets and population of the richer nations.

It must certainly be humiliating, or at least awkward, to be a Somali these days. When people hear about a person?s Somali nationality or national origin, the immediate representative picture would be pirates pillaging and holding for ransom ships that bring cargo, oil, humanitarian, aid and passengers. Somali leaders, if any, ought to do something to salvage a wretched reputation. It?s similar to the fraudulent e-mails from the ?Nigerian prince? or the Internet and online shopping scams allegedly perpetuated by Nigerian nationals. These activities destroy and distort national identity.

One must recall that despite their majestic status in Somalia, pirates are playing a deadly game. People die and resources are lost as a result of piracy. This phenomenon has been so ignominious in centuries past that certain pirates have left enduring legacies and lore. But typical pirates are not of the Captain Jack Sparrow type. They are cunning and ruthless and out for the gold in the ships. They?re not necessarily always drunk, bearded, one-eyed, and wearing deep eye shadow.

Noble Beginnings of Somali Piracy

The problem of Somali piracy began in the 1980s as a reaction to other countries? illegal fishing and toxic dumping along the Somali coast. The Somalis in the high seas were initially border patrol preventing the pillage of their natural resources by nations far larger and stronger than them.

From righteous beginnings, however, these men transformed themselves and their movement into one of the most brutal criminal professions in history. The fall of the Somali government in the early 1990s helped push pirate criminality forward. Since companies were paying ransom initially in the thousands of dollars and now in the millions, it encouraged the trade. The hapless seafarers manning the target ships were considered collateral damage. For poor people, piracy became a livelihood. Poverty and national chaos led to organized and perhaps competing structures of piratical activities.

But poverty and bad government are not excuses to engage in criminal activities such as piracy. Everyone should have a way out of poverty but legitimate avenues should always be the recourse. Stealing, kidnapping, pillaging., and ransacking moving vehicles?from ships in the high seas, to freight trains in the mountains, to cargo trucks in the highways?can never be countenanced. Otherwise the drive to get out of poverty transforms itself to greed, which is the cause and half-brother of crime.

There should be a stronger international effort to rid the seas of Somali piracy. There must also be a concerted effort to rebuild the Somali government. Somalia must not only be assisted when the West needed it to counterbalance next-door Ethiopian communism during the Cold War. It cannot be funded only when it serves certain developed countries? interests and agenda. It ought to be helped and rebuilt as it is a part of the community of nations.

Piracy won?t deter Filipino seafarers

However the world and the Philippine government react to this piratical sore, it still won?t discourage Filipino seafarers from plying the seas to practice their trade. It?s all about economics and balancing between staying put at home and risking it out there.

If these Filipinos stay put in the motherland with its presently dismal economic showing, then nothing would happen to them and their dreams. If they risk it out there as a nanny in Lebanon, a truck driver in Iraq, a seaman whose ship plies the seas along the Horn of Africa, or as a construction worker in Saudi Arabia, they will be able to do something to better themselves.

It?s not about blind courage or insane bravery, either. Most nationals of developed nations will spurn even going near the Somali pirate-infested waters for fear of their safety. But for Filipino seafarers, a lot is at stake. If they don?t take a risk or if they become too choosy, they might lose their only source of livelihood and every dream goes down the drain. Risk something, even if it?s one?s freedom, and dreams may come true for them and the family they left behind.

It?s a very sad reality that many of those who are captured and held hostage by these renegade Somali pirates are Filipino seafarers. Poverty and disillusion caused these Filipinos to risk it all in the high seas, armed only with dreams of future prosperity. Poverty and illusions caused Somalis to break out into the high seas in search of high value cargo, armed with AK-47s and with lust for immediate millions. There are common denominators, indeed, but the Filipinos? pursuit is truly noble while the Somalis? is absolutely criminal. Both are grounded on the unevenness of global finance but they work on very divergent mantras.

Certainly it?s heartbreaking to hear the news back home that a father, husband, brother, uncle, fianc, or friend is being held hostage in the high seas. This is sufficient to induce high stress in an already depressing situation. It?s akin to hearing the sad news that a loved one or a friend being arrested while working in the Middle East or of Filipino couples being deported from the United States or Japan when they have worked there for decades.

One thing to remember is that for as long as there are ships plying routes, there will be pirates. Piracy has been one of the longest criminal activities known to man. In time, hopefully, Filipino seafarers will not always be subjected to a significantly high possibility of physical seizure and unlawful detention in the high seas. They are brave, yes, but they also have families to go back to.

The author is a US/Japan-trained and -educated lawyer with a Master of Laws degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a Certificate of Business from Wharton. Send comments to carlo.osi@gmail.com or through http://eastofturtleisland.blogspot.com/. Twitter: c0si.

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