March: CIRCULAR 2A/2002


There is a recent stowaway incident in the port of Barcelona involving nine asylum seekers which hopefully culminated with the disembarkation of the nine stowaways.

The stowaways were discovered on board after the vessel had sailed from the port of Limassol. They had been placed on board the vessel, hidden inside sealed trailer lorries carrying rally cars. At the following port of call, Itea (Greece), the vessel tried to disembark the stowaways without success. The Greek Authorities absolutely refused to intervene and would not even dispatch Immigration Officials to Itea to assess the situation. The vessel was forced to sail for Barcelona with the nine stowaways on board claiming to be from Iraq and four Greek escorts looking after the stowaways to protect the safety of the ship and crew until disembarkation could be arranged.

In order for the shipowner not to be in contravention to the local requirements to declare all stowaways before arrival at Barcelona, resulting in substantial fine, the necessary procedures were complied with.

Immediate enquiries were made to know what options were open on vessel’s arrival in Barcelona and what steps could be taken to ensure that the stowaways were given a fair hearing and also to attempt to effect disembarkation. The Border Police advised that they would not allow anyone to acceed to the vessel when berthed.

Given that the Barcelona authorities were completely unwilling to assist and given that the vessel would be waiting at anchorage before berthing, an available possibility was to board the vessel at anchorage by means of a launch.

As in these cases co-ordination with the Refugees Association is of much help given the wide experience and knowledge they have, this Association was contacted to find out whether they could attend on board assisted by a lawyer and an Arab interpreter. Furthermore, it is better that the asylum seekers are assisted by an NGO rather than to appoint a private lawyer to file the petitions for asylum, in order to avoid as much as possible that correspondents establish bad relationships with the port authorities.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office of Asylum and Refugee from the Home Office were also contacted and put on notice of the situation. This way the correspondent ensured that they would both give the necessary instructions to the competent authorities in Barcelona. The stowaways would be therefore given a fair hearing and their application for asylum would be taken into consideration.

Once it was confirmed that the Refugee Association could attend on board the vessel together with their experienced lawyer and an Arab interpreter, and bearing in mind that the agent had advised that the police would not allow access to the vessel, it was arranged by the correspondent that a launch would take all these people to the vessel at anchorage.

Once on board the vessel, the stowaways were interviewed one by one by the Refugee Association’s lawyer with the assistance of the interpreter in presence of the Master, two Greek Security Officers and the correspondent. During the nine interviews, the stowaways confirmed all the details they had previously given to the Master during the Stowaway Questionnaire. They also explained their situation in Iraq and why and how they did escape from that country. All the nine stowaways signed their request to apply for political asylum and the Master signed as witness that the request was taking place on board the vessel at anchorage in Barcelona.

With the nine applications for political asylum signed by the stowaways, the six people mentioned above went ashore by means of the same launch. The nine written petitions for asylum were presented that night before the Border Police but there was nobody to attend these nine petitions. Therefore the petitions were presented the following morning before another competent authority, with the request that the nine stowaways should be landed and given a fair hearing. That same morning, after the vessel had berthed, the Police boarded the vessel and proceeded with the disembarkation of the nine stowaways so that they could formalise their petitions for asylum. Initially three were landed, followed by four and finally the two remaining stowaways were landed.

The vessel, though delayed in her departure for strange reasons, finally sailed with none of the stowaways on board. The Greek escorts had also disembarked and returned to Greece. The nine petitions for asylum were not accepted, nor denied by the competent authorities, but they were “initially” denied to be dealt with in Spain (“Inadmisión inicial a trámite”) on the basis that the competent country to know of these petitions was Greece. According to the Convention of Dublin and given that the vessel had previously called in Greece, this country is understood to be the competent country and the Greek authorities had three months to give an answer to Spain. In the meantime the nine stowaways were retained in the border office of Barcelona.

According to our domestic law, the Home Office can not retain more than 72 hours the petitioners for asylum. In order to protect the stowaways’ rights, the Red Cross was contacted to find out whether they could provide the stowaways with accommodation after the 72 hours. The Red Cross advised in return that they could not provide accommodation as they were following the Home Office instructions with whom they have signed a Convention or Protocol of assistance.

Finally and whilst the petitions for asylum were taken into consideration, the Home Office finally decided to liberate the nine stowaways and accommodate them at a private center linked to the evangelical church belonging to a NGO, with the summons to present before the police of Barcelona every fifteen days whilst they were waiting for an answer from Greece.

No answer from Greece ever arrived and therefore no repatriation costs for the stowaways Barcelona-Athens had to be paid by the shipowner. The asylum procedure is now being dealt with by the Spanish authorities.