||16 November 2003 12:00
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
In a time of jet travel and super trains, travelling by sea is no longer the quickest way to get from A to B. The passenger terminal in Durban sees only a limited number of luxury liners a year and only those lucky enough to afford a holiday cruise will ever see the inside of one of them.
But, despite this, Durban Harbour is experiencing a flood of unwanted arrivals that is threatening an administrative bottleneck and costing the South African government millions of rand.
Mr West (Stowaway): 'My mother and my three sisters... my mother and my three sisters were killed because of a bomb. So because of that I could not stand the situation in the country.'
Uche West is a ship stowaway from Sierra Leone and, with much of the African continent currently at war, he is only one of hundreds of desperate people passing through South African ports, fleeing violence and economic hardship in the hope of a better life.
Capt. Shane McKinnon (Durban Sea Borders Police Unit): 'We basically arrested 38 illegal immigrants this morning, the majority being from Tanzania, as well as Zanzibar and Burundi as well.'
Shane McKinnon is a Captain in the Durban Sea Borders Police Unit. The unit arranges raids, or rummages, an average of twice a week into Durban's docks, to search for stowaways. Not only is this a time consuming exercise, it also costs the South African Immigration Department and ship owners large amounts of money to repatriate these people.
Tyrone Paul (GAC Shipping): 'On average stowaways cost between R40 000 to R50 000 from landing here in Durban to landing back in their own country.'
Tyrone Paul of GAC Shipping is hired by ship owners to repatriate stowaways found on board their vessels. Uche West was found hiding on one of the ships Tyrone manages.
After the death of his family in Sierra Leone and in fear of his own life, Uche left the war-torn country. Living illegally in a number of African countries he eventually ended up in Gabon, where he lived for three years before stowing away on a log ship that would bring him to South Africa.
Mr West: 'We spent two weeks in the bush and on the beach of Gabon waiting to enter the ship. After we entered we spent one week waiting for the ship to load.'
According to Captain McKinnon, vessels carrying huge consignments of logs are known to be a popular choice of escape amongst stowaways leaving East and West Africa.
Shane McKinnon: 'The logs look small from here, but once you get on board, there's gaps and the stowaways will hide between them.'
Stowaways can spend weeks hiding in amongst the cargo waiting to dock. Besides being a long journey, it can also be a dangerous and sometimes fatal one, with reports of stowaways dying accidentally in chimneystacks and engine rooms.
Mr West: 'When the crane put these things on top of it, it seemed as if the wood would just fall and crush us.'
Uche showed us where he and five other stowaways managed to find safety in a cramped storeroom under the massive cargo. They survived for 11 days before they ran out of food and water.
West: 'We get water with this, it's what we were using to drink water.'
When one of them ventured out in search of fresh supplies they were caught by the ships crew four days out of Gabon.
A stowaway's fate is decided and sealed by many different players; the ship's captain, the ship's owner, the border police and finally immigration.
International Maritime Law states that the repatriation of stowaways - like the six from Gabon - is the responsibility of the ship owner and not the South African authorities, because they are caught while still on board the ship.
Shane: 'It's been confirmed already from the agents that there are six stowaways that have stowed away and been detected on board. We are just here for the process.'
The Border Police's role in this situation is simply to provide extra security. The six stowaways were arrested and escorted off the ship by a security company hired by the ship's agency.
Zaa: 'How big a problem are stowaways?'
Tyrone (GAC Shipping): 'We've handled in the last month 15 stowaways.'
Zaa: 'Is that an average?'
Tyrone: 'It's probably a bit high, but considering we are one of, say, 40/50 agents in the port of Durban, you can see how big a problem it is.'
But, despite these statistics, Shane says that, in his experience, stowaways often do not intend for South Africa to be their final destination.
Shane: 'They all want to go to Europe. Some of them don't even know where they have arrived. They basically climb on these vessels with no idea where they are going. It shows you how desperate they are.'
Uche and the other stowaways had no idea where South Africa was, or that the ship they had chosen was actually bound for China. They were shocked to find out that they were now further from their dream than if they had stayed in Gabon.
Mr West: 'The suffering is too much.'
Uche's goal was to reach France, where he would one day play professional football. Besides the clothes on his back, his only other possessions were photographs of himself playing soccer in Gabon as proof of his talent.
Mr West: 'That is proof that if I succeed and I get to Europe, I show it to clubs I play football.'
South Africa is one of the few countries that allow ships to land stowaways and many ships captains take advantage of this, even though it can cost the ship owner up to R50 000 per stowaway.
Zaa: 'R50 000 multiplied by 15 ... that's a lot of money.'
Tyrone:' It is a lot of money. Ja.'
Zaa: 'Do you think that's fair?'
Tyrone: 'The government takes the view that the stowaway has got on board as a result of the ship's lackadaisical security measures'
As a further deterrent, ship owners also pay a fine of R2500 per stowaway landed in South Africa to the Department of Home Affairs... altogether, a lot of money. And it is possibly for this reason that some ship's captains find a more ruthless way to deal with the problem.
In January 2001, four Congolese stowaways were abandoned on a raft at sea near the coast of Cape Town. After two days a passing yacht finally rescued them.
The Congolese stowaways were lucky to get away alive. A year earlier a Liberian stowaway drowned when he was beaten and thrown overboard by the captain of a Chinese vessel off the Namibian coast.
Not all stowaways are caught aboard vessels while still at sea. Most hide away long enough and climb off ship under the cover of darkness. If they are caught they become the responsibility of South African Home Affairs where their process of repatriation becomes a whole different story.
Vanu Naidoo (Chief Immigration Officer): 'A few of them end up in our asylum-seeking process. A number of them sometimes become illegal immigrants, if they are not detected timeously. Eventually they are detected, arrested and repatriated by our immigration services.'
Zaa: 'And that is being implemented now?'
Vanu: 'As I indicated earlier, if the stowaway is detected then he follows the necessary procedures.'
Vanu Naidoo is Chief Immigration Officer at the Department of Home Affairs in Durban.
He explained to us that while the offer of asylum is extended to stowaways, who are now reclassified as illegal immigrants because they have made it off the ship and onto the docks, people like Uche would not be able to apply because they are not the responsibility of the South African authorities and cannot take advantage of its processes.
Shane: 'The harbour is pretty full of these guys and hence we have these operations at this time in the morning.'
The first rummage Carte Blanche went on began at four am. Our intention was to catch suspected illegal immigrants while they were still sleeping. The morning proved to be a busy one.
Shane: 'He's coming this way!'
After a short search, Shane and his team found over 20 sleeping in and amongst bales of wire mesh fencing. In total, 60 people were arrested that morning.
According to Captain MacKinnon the numbers are high in Durban Harbour because it is a transition port for ships sailing from Africa to the rest of the world.
Shane: 'A lot of them will use the ship to get to South Africa and then hang around in the port until they can get onto another vessel to go out. '
The stories these stowaways have to tell are no different to those of Uche and the five from Gabon. Umbura Angalies is from Burundi, but boarded a ship illegally in Dar es Salaam
Umbura Angalies: 'I hide.'
But like Uche, Umbura had no idea his ship would stop in South Africa.
Umbura Angalies: 'The time when I hide in the ship I didn't know the destination of the ship.'
When he was arrested he had been hiding for two months in Durban's port, waiting to stowaway again
Umbura: 'I want to go to Europe.'.
Once caught, illegal immigrants like Umbura are given two options; one, to be deported immediately or two, to apply for refugee status.
Vanu: 'Well, initially when they apply for asylum we give them a permit, which is actually a Section 22 permit, which allows them to take up employment and to also study if they so desire. '
For Umbura, as with many others, the choice was easy.
The first step to becoming an asylum seeker is to have your nationality and story verified, which isn't always easy when you come from a country ravaged by war.
Official: 'Can you sing the national anthem for Burundi please? Sing for me please. That is not the national anthem for Burundi. Can I give you clue for the national anthem for Burundi?'
Umbura: 'I finished school a long time ago. That's why I can't sing very well.'
Although Umbura's initial questioning didn't look good, he was able to convince the Home Affairs official that he was telling the truth and he was entered into the system.
Asylum seekers are put through a series of interviews before they are considered for refugee status.
Vanu Naidoo: 'First interview, the determining interview and the appeal process. Sometimes it can take quite a bit of time, even up to a year.'
In the meantime, the illegal immigrants are issued temporary papers proving that they are asylum seekers. They are then free to go. Most head back to the port. Once there, it is impossible for the border police to tell the difference between those who have papers and those who don't.
Carte Blanche went on three raids with the border police into Durban Port over a period of five weeks. In that time we saw the same people being arrested over and over.
Zaa: 'As a border policeman, is that frustrating?'
Shane: 'Oh, I would say it is frustrating.'
Zaa: 'To see the same faces?'
But for the stowaways, the continuous re-arresting is confusing and sometimes frightening.
Stowaway: 'Please sir, what we are asking you is ... we will find our papers.'
The window period created while waiting for an interview with Home Affairs would also seem to be creating an opportunity for stowaways stranded in South Africa to board ships bound for Europe & America.
Tanzanian stowaway Ramazaan Dadi was picked up for the second time as he was scouting for a ship to take him to America.
Shane: 'Things that they carry with them is biscuits, water and glucose to sustain them on the vessel for wherever they are going.
Dadi: 'I want to take it on the ship.'
Even though Dadi admitted he was waiting to stowaway, there was nothing the border police could do, because he was in possession of a call back letter.
Zaa: 'From the outside looking in, it just seems like there is a lot of paper work? Aren't we just wasting the taxpayers' money here?'
Vanu: 'I wouldn't call it a waste of tax payers' money. At the end of the day we cannot allow a situation to develop where there are a large influx of illegal immigrants and there is no return to actually repatriate these people.'
Zaa: 'Are you winning the battle do you think?'
Vanu: 'We do our best. We are working under trying conditions but we endeavour to do our best at all times to protect the rights of individuals, especially the asylum seekers and the illegal immigrants.'
Tyrone: 'So as long a you have problems in the ports of East Africa and West Africa for that fact, people are going to constantly stowaway in hope of a better life.'
Dadi : 'From my experience I would not advise somebody to take the same way, because of what I have gone through. But it depends on the people's hearts and their situation and problems.'
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.