Contraband and other prohibited items in crews' personal possession


Published: 11 March 2015

Members are advised to renew warnings to crew about the personal possession of contraband and other prohibited articles. When a vessel is a given port, the laws of that country will apply, this includes jurisdiction over any personal possessions of the crew.

The Association is grateful to Correspondents P&I Associates in South Africa for contributing to this update.

The situation

When a vessel calls at a port, it will be subject to the local laws of that particular jurisdiction. Should crew be in possession of contraband or any other items which are prohibited locally, then there may be a seizure of such items, crew may be detained, and prosecutions may follow. Recently the Association has been advised that in particular at the ports of Durban, South Africa and Hong Kong, HKSAR, that searches by law enforcement and customs, have shown crew to be in possession of illegal items.

Shipowners and technical managers must ensure crew are continuously warned against having items in their possession that may contravene the laws of countries the vessel may call at.

Port of Durban, South Africa
Correspondents have advised that it is common practice for the local police to search the whole of a ship that has come to port. The aim of the search is to check in particular for:

  1. drugs
  2. pornography
  3. weapons

If such items are found they may be seized, crew may be detained, the vessel may also be subject to detention, and a criminal investigation may follow. That could lead to formal arrests, charges and prosecution. Crew should be aware that having such items in their possession may be against local laws. While items 1 and 3 would typically be considered clear examples of illegal items, not every crew is aware that even smaller knifes (which the crew may see as a tool) could be considered as a weapon. As for item no. 2, while not illegal in some parts of the world, in others there may be strict controls. There may also be a differentiation between different types of item no. 2, and correspondents recently dealt with a case where a crew was found to be in possession of child pornography. This lead to an arrest and prosecution.

As a separate issue, it has also been reported at times that crew have alleged that after such searches some personal possessions, including phones and money, were missing. Apparently there is an internal investigation now being carried out by local authorities in to this situation.

The advice from correspondents is that cabins should be locked at all times, and should a police search be undertaken then crew should attend - preferably at least one senior officer - when each individual cabin is searched.

Hot Tip: in case of concern the master should seek to make immediate contact with the local correspondent. Do not engage in a confrontation with law enforcement, but keep a careful record of all circumstances of any boarding and searches.

Port of Hong Kong, HKSAR
Following a request by the Hong Kong police, the Philippine Bureau of Immigration issued a reminder to all seafarers to not bring any prohibited items with them when coming to Hong Kong. In particular it would appear that crew carried such items when they called at Hong Kong ports, or sought to transit through Hong Kong (for joining or departing from a vessel).

The police made particular mention that the following items were prohibited:

  1. stun guns
  2. tear gas
  3. bullets
  4. extendible batons
  5. knuckle dusters

All of these items are considered arms (weapons) under the Firearms and Ammunition Ordinance (FAO) and other Hong Kong legislation. An offence under the FAO may be punished by a fine of up to HKD100,000 and / or a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

Reports indicate that during 2014, up to 81 Filipino nationals (most of whom were seafarers) were arrested and convicted of possessions of arms without a license in Hong Kong.

Loss Prevention Advice

The offences that may be committed by crew if they engage in smuggling drugs, are in the possession of drugs, carry weapons and / or are in the possession of pornography (particularly child pornography) are extremely serious and are likely to impact not just themselves, but also their fellow crew members and the vessel.

The consequences can include detentions, arrests and prosecutions, fines, jail time and in extreme cases even the confiscation of the ship itself. Additionally it is likely that a severe situation would attract media attention with consequent reputational risks.

The best prevention is to ensure that all crew, in training, are educated as to the risks of having contraband in their possession and the even greater risks of being found to be engaged in smuggling activities.

Companies should have clear drug and alcohol policies, but in addition should ensure that there are unequivocal rules for the expected conduct of all crew on board any member's vessel. Crew should read and acknowledge policies and requirements prior to signing the employment contract and boarding of the vessel.

After boarding, it is for the master and officers to ensure that crew are regularly reminded, especially in advance of port calls, about the risks and dangers that they will bring upon themselves and their fellow crewmen should they have contraband in their possession or seek to acquire the same during the port call.

Ship and shore need to co-operate closely in case there is a situation of concern. If a matter is serious then company procedures with respect to crew disciplinary issues should be followed carefully and in a well-documented manner.

Should a vessel be boarded for inspection, and any issues arise, then the master or chief officer should not hesitate to make immediate contact with the nearest club correspondent office.

Additional covers

Members may wish to consider adding to their insurance coverage to protect themselves against some of the risks occasioned by these scenarios with additional covers available from Skuld. In particular the following covers would be worth considering for these circumstances:

  • Drug Seizure Insurance
  • Illegal Product Seizure Insurance

In case members have further queries in respect of such additional covers, they are asked to contact the Association's underwriters at their usual Skuld business unit.

Further reading

The Association has previously advised with respect to drug smuggling and ISPS issues.

For vessel specific enquiries, members are asked to contact their usual Skuld business unit.

For further information, members are asked to contact the Loss Prevention team.