Sierra Leone's flag of convenience

While Sierra Leone was busy making plans to stop Ebola, a Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship carrying 450 migrants was found powerless off the coast of Italy this week.

According to Deutsche Welle the Syrian migrants on board the cargo ship Ezadeen told Italian authorities they had each paid between $4,000 and $8,000 (3,300 - 6,600 euros) for their passage. Syria has been caught up in civil war for four years.

Rob Watson of the BBC News said the Ezadeen and the plight of its unfortunate passengers are part of an often unreported wave of human misery and hardship that sees hundreds of people try to cross the Mediterranean every day to reach Europe. On arriving in Italy, the Syrian migrants were taken to shelters around the country, where they can apply for asylum.

The migrants also told Italian investigators their smugglers aboard the cargo ship wore hoods to avoid identification before abandoning the helm in choppy Mediterranean waters.

The Ezadeen was built nearly 50 years ago and is a livestock carrier. It appears to be registered to a Lebanese company and has come under the control of human traffickers.

Four years ago, Reuters reported that Sierra Leone had ended its flag of convenience for fishing vessels. Closing off its international shipping registry to foreign-owned fishing vessels was a move intended to reduce illegal catches in its seas and around the world.

Officials said the West African country -- notorious as a so-called "flag of convenience" with minimum enforcement of maritime regulations -- was the first such nation in the world to implement the measure.
"When these vessels fly our flag they go to the open ocean and there's nothing we can do about it," Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources Joseph Koroma told a news conference in October 2010.
"We are saying enough is enough, the buck stops here."
But the ban on foreign-owned shipping only applied to fishing craft. Other commercial vessels were still be able to register in the country.
 In 2010, between 40 and 50 foreign-owned fishing vessels are signed up with a registry in New Orleans that allows them to fly Sierra Leone’s green, white and blue flag.

Koroma told Reuters that between 2005 and 2009 ship owners paid a total of just $46,000 for flag privileges. Due to a revenue sharing agreement with the registry in the United States, the government in Freetown received only around $10,000.
Activists said these ships use the flag to disguise illegal activities and their identities, using banned fishing gear and operating inside an inshore fishing zone reserved for artisanal fishermen in Sierra Leone itself as well as much further afield.

Flag of convenience is the business practice of registering a merchant ship in a sovereign state different from that of the ship's owners, and flying that state's civil ensign on the ship. Ships are registered under flags of convenience to reduce operating costs or avoid the regulations of the owner's country.

Last November, the NPR ran a story on how Liberia's 'Flags Of Convenience' Help It Stay Afloat

My name's Scott Bergeron. I'm the CEO of the Liberian registry.

JULIA SIMON: Bergeron says Liberia doesn't have to do much. Every year, the registry business sends some of its profits back to the Liberian government.

BERGERON: This is somewhere north of $20 million per year.

SIMON: Twenty million dollars may not sound like much, but Liberia is a very small country. The fees from registering ships make up about 6 percent of the national budget. And more importantly, in a time when all other businesses in Liberia are reeling from the Ebola crisis, this is money that flows into the budget no matter what. For NPR News, I'm Julia Simon.

Not only was the law designed to help American businesses, it was set up to be run from an office in the U.S. and managed by Americans. By the late-1960s, Liberia's was the biggest registry in the world. It's in second place today, right behind Panama. 


The head of Sierra Leone's Maritime Administration told Reuters that Sierra Leone was planning to carry out a review of all vessels registered there. Alhaji Wuror Jalloh said his country had suspended the licence of the Ezadeen, which had been registered in 2010 to German owners "just to carry livestock and not to transport human beings."

The Sierra Leone Maritime Administration (SLMA) said Wednesday that the SLMA is working with the Italian coastguard and the international shipping registry to address the issue by taking punitive measures against the owners of the vessel.

"As a first step, the registration of the vessel has been withdrawn and the vessel has now been arrested by the Italian coastguard," the SLMA press release said.

"Bearing in mind that such a development has the likelihood to affect the good image of Sierra Leone Internationally, we are also instituting tougher measures to prevent future recurrence."


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