“Hijack” that did not happen

Questions over a decision to deploy special forces against a group of seven asylum seekers accused of hijacking an oil tanker, after one of them said that they only approached the ship’s crew because they believed that they had been abandoned at sea to drown.

Many politicians and human rights campaigners have called for an inquiry into the incident which happened off the coast of the Isle of Wight, on board the Nave Andromeda, a Liberian registered ship owned by the Greek shipping company Navios.

The supposed hijack generated international headlines and 16 members of the elite Navy force, the Special Boat Service, based only a few miles away in Poole, Dorset, were hailed as heroes for bringing the incident to a swift conclusion after they fast roped down on to the deck of the ship from helicopters while snipers in another helicopter patrolled above.

The decision to carry out the raid was authorised by the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the defence minister, Ben Wallace, who said at the time: “People are safe tonight thanks to their efforts”.

One of the stowaways, who has now claimed asylum, said that on the day of the SBS raid he and the six other stowaways were locked in a cabin, as they had been for the previous 12 days since being discovered while tying themselves to the exterior of the ship.

“Everything was quiet on the ship.  We thought maybe the crew had left because the ship was sinking and we thought they were leaving us to drown. We shouted but nobody came.  We waited for many hours and then broke down the cabin door and went up on deck”.

All seven had tied themselves to the exterior of the ship using strong ropes in the early hours of the morning, when the ship was docked in Lagos, Nigeria. Before that they had been living on the streets and had been exploited by a gang and there lives had been threatened.  A friend introduced them to a man who told them he could get them out of Lagos by putting them on a ship bound for Europe, and that when they reached there destination the man’s friend would meet the ship and find them work.

One of the men said he had had a good childhood, both of his parents were farmers and he went to school and always had enough to eat.  But his parents were both killed by Boko Haram when he was still a child and he ended up on the streets in Lagos.  I agreed to the man’s offer to put me on a ship because I felt I had nothing left to lose.  The man gave us 25 litres of water and some gari (powdered cassava) to last us for a few days.  The stowaways agreed to share the food and water equally between them, and took it in turns to sleep and watch over those who were sleeping to ensure they did not fall into the water.

They were not discovered until the ship docked in Spain where they were taken on board the ship by the captain.  We were so happy to get on the ship, we were very tired and hungry and thirsty, and needed to sleep properly.

All seven were locked in a cabin, and the crew treated them well, bringing food and water regularly and sometimes letting them go on deck to get fresh air.  We asked the captain many questions, but he did not always answer us. We did not know where we were sailing to and were afraid the ship had changed course and was going back to Africa.  We had no phones to identify our position on the sea so had to look out of the window and guess from the weather whether were still in Europe or back in Africa.  The daily routine of crew members bringing them breakfast changed on the day of the SBS raid.

The captain was on the bridge but it was locked.  The captain held up a piece of paper saying: “Stay calm the port authorities are coming to pick you up”.  We sat and waited on the deck but it got colder and colder so we went back into the cabin.

All seven of the the stowaways were shocked when the SBS arrived.  “They came down from the chopper like they were going to war.  They told us to lie belly down on the deck.

The SOS message sent by the ship captain reported seeing six of the stowaways going outside (on the deck).  “But they cannot come inside.  I try to keep them calm.  I need immediately agency assistance”.

The seven stowaways were handed over to Hampshire police and were expected to be charged with hijack related offences.   Two were in fact charged with offences relating to conduct endangering ships.  However, it emerged that no charges would proceed against the stowaways who have claimed asylum.

The Crown Prosecution Service said initial reports had indicated “a real and imminent threat” to the vessel but mobile phone footage and further evidence “could not show that the ship or the crew were threatened”.

The Home Office said it was frustrated and disappointed that the CPS decided not to bring any charges.

“At first they said they were sea pirates but there was no evidence of that”, said the stowaways, “they said we tried to hijack a ship.  Such an incident did not happen.  I’m happy we had a good crown prosecutor who went through the case properly”.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, said: “Ministers’ massive over-reaction was a farce.  There must be serious review into the poor judgement in this case to restore confidence in the chain of command”.

The stowaways spent more then four months locked up in immigration detention before being released into the care of the Salvation Army, which provides support for victims of trafficking.

Acting director of the charity Detention Action, James Wilson, said: “This debacle raises serious questions that the government now needs to answer.  The lack of a credible or verified threat is deeply concerning and the situation appears to have been badly mishandled.  The public and our military deserve an urgent inquiry into how and why the home secretary took a decision to deploy elite forces against vulnerable asylum seekers to stop a hijack that never happened”.