SINGAPORE: There were 34 instances of suspected robbers boarding ships in the Singapore Strait last year, three more than the 31 incidents reported in 2019, a maritime information sharing centre said on Friday (Jan 15).
This continues a rising trend after only 17 incidents were reported from 2016 to 2018, according to figures from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre.
Of the 34 incidents in 2020, 30 took place in the eastbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), while the most common type of vessel targeted were bigger ships like bulk carriers, the centre's annual report for 2020 showed.
In some incidents, the perpetrators were armed with knives, with items stolen ranging from cash to engine spares. In one incident, a crew member was injured.
This took place on May 9 last year, when five robbers boarded the tanker Vega Aquarius that was heading from Singapore to China in the eastbound lane of the TSS.
According to the incident report, perpetrators armed with long knives confronted the ship's duty ordinary seaman and robbed him of his mobile phone.
The seaman managed to escape and alerted another crew member, who raised the alarm and gathered other crew members.
"A search on board the ship was conducted by the crew after the
perpetrators escaped and two sets of breathing apparatus were reported stolen," the report said. "The ordinary seaman sustained minor head injury."
While authorities in Singapore and Indonesia were notified, the ship resumed its voyage without requiring assistance, the report concluded.
SAME PERPETRATORS INVOLVED IN MULTIPLE INCIDENTS
The ReCAAP annual report highlighted that perpetrators were persistent in their attempts to board ships in the eastbound lane, demonstrated by more than one boarding occurring within short intervals of time.
For instance, a number of incidents reported in November last year took place close to each other, including one on Nov 8 and two on Nov 9.
"It is possible that the same group of perpetrators was involved in some of these incidents based on the short time interval between the incidents, the close proximity of the incidents to each other and their modus operandi," the report said.
However, the report noted that there was a decrease in the number of incidents reported in the westbound lane of the TSS, possibly due to increased enforcement there and the decreasing price of scrap metal, which has traditionally been sold on the black market.
Overall, ReCAAP centre's executive director Masafumi Kuroki said the increase in sea robbery incidents could again be attributed to the busy strait's narrow waterways and slow-moving ships, making the area prone to robberies.
The COVID-19 pandemic could have also contributed to this rise, Mr Kuroki said.
"The economic hardships caused by COVID-19 to coastal communities could lead to more people resorting to sea robberies," he said.
"It is also possible that the prolonged work of crew on board ships due to difficulties in making crew changes causes fatigue to the crew and may reduce their vigilance."
Mr Kuroki reiterated the ReCAAP centre's calls for coastal states to increase patrols, share information and respond promptly to incidents.
The Singapore Strait comprises the territorial waters of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
"We urge the littoral states to take seriously petty theft and sea robbery because leaving criminals to continue their crime with impunity will only embolden them to escalate their acts,” Mr Kuroki said.