Project Kraken at 13: Has the UK’s Naval Neighbourhood Watch Failed?

Summer 2020 was a miserable one on the Channel. On 19 August, it was confirmed that a migrant’s life was  lost, one week after the deployment of  a Royal Air Force ‘submarine hunter’, a Boeing P8-A Poseidon, to the Channel to support Border Force in the face of burgeoning migrant crossings. On 8 August, it was announced that the Home Office had requested military aid in light of a record 235 crossings on 6 August. That record was short lived: it was eclipsed by 416 crossings on 2 September.

This issue of cross-Channel migration – chained as it is to highly coordinated transnational organised crime – burns brightly in public discourse.

Addressing an urgent Parliamentary question on 2 September, Under-Secretary of State Chris Philp lamented the “completely unacceptable increase in illegal migration through small-boat crossings from France to the UK…The majority of these crossings are facilitated by ruthless criminal gangs that make money from exploiting migrants who are desperate to come here”.

Those gangs, he declared, “are dangerous; they are ruthless; they are exploiting vulnerable migrants; and they are engaged in other associated criminality. We will stop at nothing to get all of them rounded up, arrested and put out of business”.

Central to this rhetoric is intelligence sharing and multi-stakeholder cooperation. In that debate, Philp sought to reassure Parliament that the government was “working closely with [its] French colleagues to prevent these crossings. That includes patrols of the beaches by French officers, some of whom we fund, surveillance and intelligence sharing…We have already in the last two months established a joint intelligence cell to ensure that intelligence about crossings is rapidly acted upon”.

But something has remained silent and invisible in this crisis: a UK multi-agency initiative that turns 13 this month, yet eludes public scrutiny.

Little is known about Project Kraken, and it is time that questions are asked, at high levels, about Kraken’s track record. It is in the public interest that maritime security thinkers and practitioners investigate Kraken’s successes, failures and expenditures.

What is Project Kraken?

On 17 September 2007, Kraken was launched at Southampton Boat Show. Its intention was to combat terrorism and crime on the UK coastline. But the launch came just three days after Northern Rock bank agreed emergency funding: this was the start of the financial crisis, and austerity.

It is in this context that we should understand Kraken’s avoidance of deploying proverbial boots on the ground. Kraken was not about mobilising intelligence, surveillance and law enforcement personnel.

Quite the opposite. It sought to mobilise members of the public, attuning them to incidences of suspiciousness that might (or might not) indicate the preparation or commission of crime or terrorism on the coastline.

The logic is tempting. The CIA’s tried-and-tested World Factbook indicates that the UK’s coastline is well over 12,000km long. Certain coastal infrastructural nodes (ports, oil and gas terminals, power stations) are policed by such specialist non-Home Office forces as the Ministry of Defence Police, Civil Nuclear Constabulary and Port of Dover Police. And coastal towns and cities are, of course, policed by their respective Home Office constabularies.

But there are swathes of the coastline that elude law enforcement and intelligence attention. In the age of (post)austerity, there are not enough proverbial boots to deploy.

Kraken, in theory at least, would overcome this seemingly impossible task of keeping watch upon the more remote stretches of the coastline. It uses vigilance calls – posters, public engagement, informative webpages – to raise public awareness of what suspiciousness on the coast looks like.

It is involved in what Louise Amoore once called a “watchful politics” that seeks to render members of the public cognizant to potential indicators of crime and terrorism.

Who is watching whom?

Let me stress two things. Firstly, the informants are citizen informants rather than pensionable surveillance and intelligence officers. The informants are members of the public who frequent the coastline, either as part of their private lives or their working livelihoods.

Those citizen informants are not even voluntary special constables who swore an oath and are bound by such instruments as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, or the College of Policing Code of Ethics. They are ‘ordinary’ members of the public with no formal investigative or surveillance training.

There is no legal accountability and no procedural doctrine governing the individuals whose awareness of suspiciousness is raised.

Kraken’s vigilance calls found welcome audiences in sailors of traditional gaff rigged boats, people who go wildfowl shooting on the Kent coast, and recreational boaters. Kraken vigilance calls have a clear, simple message: if you see something suspicious, err on the side of caution and report it; let the state decide the appropriate response.

This leads to my second point: Kraken is pre-judicial in requesting citizens to judge ‘others’ according to their extant understandings of what an ‘ordinary’, legally compliant person or activity looks like.

Forget the possibility that intelligence and surveillance officers sniffing for people traffickers, drug smugglers and terrorists will be cloaked in ‘t-shirt and jeans’ garb. You might as well report them, too.

A Neighbourhood Watch at Sea?

There are striking similarities between Project Kraken and British Transport Police’s ‘See it, say it, sorted’ campaign. There are also affinities here with Neighbourhood Watch.

But whilst a ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ search of the British Library catalogue returns 450 results, a ‘Project Kraken’ search returns 4, and not one of them has the slightest pertinence to coastal security.

The work I conducted for my recent paper in Geopolitics was unable to identify much hard data on Kraken’s successes, failures and expenditures. Coventry University’s James Malcolm once conducted a small survey of Kraken during his doctorate. Yet, its sample size, and potential groupthink bias – the survey was police-checked before distribution – compounds the fact it was conducted a decade ago.

The land-based Neighbourhood Watch concept is better understood, more prevalent in the public imagination, and the subject of infinitely more research. A schoolboy Google Scholar search for Neighbourhood Watch returns, at the time of writing, 210,000 results.

So, as a summer of misery on the Channel draws to a conclusion, my questions are simple.

In the last thirteen years, how much has Project Kraken cost? How many (a) incidents and (b) crimes has it detected? And finally, what role – if any – has it played in the English Channel crisis?

If it has failed, should funds not be redirected elsewhere? Perhaps it is time for Project Kraken to surface for once more in Parliamentary questions.

Dr Duncan Weaver manages the University of East Anglia validated Crime, Terrorism and Global Security degree. He previously taught at Keele University and worked in law enforcement.

A pdf of the commentary can be downloaded here

Event – ‘Blue Crimes: Rethinking the maritime security agenda’

10th September, 14.00-15.30 BST

Presenter & Panellist

Timothy Edmunds (SafeSeas/Uni of Bristol)


Jason Eligh (Global Initiative)
Maria Damanaki (ex-EU Marine Commissioner)
Cathy Haenlein (RUSI)
Alan Cole (UNODC GMCP)


Piracy, smuggling and illegal fishing are three blue crimes increasingly high on the international agenda. Such crimes have different expressions across the world’s maritime regions and affect human lives, political stability and economic interests in different ways, ranging from their impact on coastal communities to international shipping and even national security.

There are significant debates and uncertainties, however, around the current usage of the term ‘blue crime’. These centre around the meaning, scope and reach of the concept including, what illicit activities it comprises, and how these can be meaningfully structured in ways that that both recognise the diverse nature of maritime crime yet also provide a basis for an integrated response to it.

SafeSeas directors Christian Bueger and Tim Edmunds have recently published an article that addresses these uncertainties and contestations and develops a systematic categorisation of ‘blue crime’. Through this categorisation, the article identifies three core groups of blue crime: crimes against mobility, criminal flows, and environmental crimes.

Specifically, the article highlights three consequences: First, it is clear that some forms of maritime crime are significantly better documented than others. Second, it implies that more work needs to be done to understand the ways in which different actors and organisations involved in the fight against maritime crime share information between each other, and more widely.

Finally, it points to the importance of the governance and organisation of joined up responses to blue crimes, including capacity building as the international and regional governance systems are fragmented and lack integration.

These leads to the below guiding questions for the discussion:

  • What forms of blue crimes are invisible, but should gain more attention?
  • How do blue crimes hang together?
  • Should we speak about blue crime, rather than transnational organised crime at sea?
  • Can we build better synergies in tackling different forms of crime at sea?

Using crime script analysis to better understand piracy manifestations

By Bryan C. Peters

Despite the undeniable social relevance of piracy, criminologist have lagged behind other fields in its study. In 2009, Forsyth, Gisclair and Forsyth aptly noted that, “most criminologists are landlocked…as if crime on the water did not exist”.1

Although interest is slowly growing within the field, the potential utility of criminological theories and analytical tools have yet to be broadly exploited. One such tool is crime script analysis. With roots in rational choice theory and the cognitive sciences, crime script analysis was developed by criminologist Derek Cornish.2

A straightforward and pragmatic tool, crime scripts are “step-by-step accounts of the procedures adopted by offenders to successfully commit a particular crime”.3 Crime script analysis allows the researcher to systematically investigate the entire crime commission process, including actions taken before, during and after a crime has been committed.

Conducive to a variety of methodological and data collection strategies, crime script analysis has been applied to a number of crime types ranging in complexity from simple, low-level crimes such as shoplifting, pickpocketing and theft to more complex ones including corruption, cybercrimes and child sex trafficking (refer to Dehghanniri & Borrion, 2019 for more examples). More practically, crime scripts can be used by policy-makers and private entities to identify possible intervention points to disrupt the crime commission process. Further, crime scripting is a fluid process. As more and better data is collected, scripts can easily be revised and interventions can be reassessed and changed accordingly.

In a recent article published in the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, I employ crime script analysis to articulate detailed business models for each type of piracy in the waters within and off Nigeria. In this first application of crime script analysis to piracy, I show the utility of this technique in counter-piracy efforts and its potential application to other regional piracy manifestations, and to ‘blue crimes’ more broadly.4

Crime script analysis applied to Nigerian piracy

The Nigerian piracy manifestation was the obvious choice to test this analytical tool. As the epicentre of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) and the contemporary global ‘hot spot,’ piratical acts perpetrated in these waters are particularly troubling and violent, with far reaching consequences.

Figure 1. Nigerian Piracy Incidents (2009 – 2018) (Source: Peters, 2020)

The analysis relied upon the comprehensive International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy definition: “An act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act.” 5

To classify piracy incidents, I employed Justin Hastings’ offense-based typology which includes kidnappings for ransom, robberies and ship/cargo seizures. 6 I also chose to include attempted attacks (suspicious approaches and unsuccessful boardings) as they were quite common and had the potential to produce significant harms.

Combining publicly available incident report data from multiple sources (IMB, International Maritime Organization and the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency), I created a dataset containing 406 piracy incidents perpetrated between 2009 and 2018.7 Most incident reports provided structured data fields (e.g., incident date, time, vessel characteristics and geographic coordinates) as well as brief, unstructured incident summaries which also provided a wealth of information.

Since there was some overlap between data sources, care was taken to ensure that duplicate incidents were not recorded in the dataset. To compensate for the high rate of partial- and under-reporting, the primary data collection was supplemented with insights from piracy literature and interviews with piracy experts.

Using content, descriptive statistical and geospatial analysis, I was able to piece together detailed business models for each piracy type. The business models depict “the typical logistics or modus operandi of a criminal activity”8 and include perpetrator characteristics, resource requirements, operational phases, script activities, spatial distributions and accompanying and enabled criminal activities.9 Each business model was organized into three distinct operational phases: pre-attack, attack and post-attack. To highlight script activities and the sequence of events during an attack, crime script diagrams were created for each piracy-type.

It should be noted that these diagrams are meant to show only the “typical” crime commission process – incidents do not always follow the same progression nor do they always require the same resources and script activities. During the initial stages of the research, based on the level of organization and resource requirements, it became clear that two distinct sub-types of robberies were common in Nigeria, petty (mostly in port and anchorage areas) and organized (occurring further offshore by larger, more organized groups operating out of the Niger River Delta). As such, it was decided to construct separate scripts for each sub-type.

Figure 2. The Scripts (by piracy-type)(Source: Peters, 2020)

Diagrams show the “typical” crime commission process—some incidents do not require every script activity nor do they always follow the exact sequence of events. White text boxes signify activities that are common to most cases. Red text boxes depict common activities typically involving corruption. Green text boxes signify actions that occasionally occur (those outlined in red can involve corruption). Black circles signify the operation end-point and arrows indicate the transition between operational phases.

1. Kidnapping for Ransom

2. Cargo Seizure (Oil)

3. Robbery (Organized)

4. Robbery (Petty)

Research highlights and concluding remarks

There were two overarching goals of this research. The first was to highlight the utility of this analytical technique in studying piracy, and by extension, other ‘blue crimes.’ The second was to stimulate criminological research on piracy, and more broadly, to show the potential of applying criminological theories to the study of piracy. More practically, the piracy business models highlight the importance of investigating each piracy-type independently, allowing policy-makers to identify commonalities as well as the unique differences between them and to design custom interventions tailored for each.

Although crime scripting can be used in developing long-term counter-piracy interventions, due to the intensification and violent nature of the Nigerian manifestation, I chose to focus only on those that could be implemented in the short-term to protect those in immediate risk, seafarers and fishermen. I provide several examples of situational prevention and tactical enforcement measures that can be used by both public and private actors to protect those most vulnerable to attack. A few examples include:

  • Employing proven ship-borne measures designed to increase pirates’ perceived risk and effort such as having a visible ant-piracy watch, increasing deck lighting and, when under attack, the use of evasive maneuvering, increasing speed and mustering crewmembers (for more examples see Shane et al., 2015 and Shane & Magnuson, 2016)
  • Increasing vigilance during risky STS operations to reduce vulnerability
  • Targeting pirate operational bases in the Niger River Delta since these groups are responsible for many of the most serious incidents
  • Bolstering security in vulnerable port-areas with a focus on waterborne threats (this analysis revealed that most port incidents were perpetrated via the water and not from the land)

On a side note, the geospatial analysis also revealed distinct spatial patterns between piracy-types in Nigeria—information that can also be used in developing tactical interventions.

Figure 3. Spatial Distributions of Piracy Incidents by Type (2009 – 2018) (Source: Peters, 2020)

Looking to the future, crime scripting could be applied to other regional piracy manifestations and to a variety of other ‘blue crimes.’ Crime scripting can also be used in the process of assessing the harms of piracy and to ultimately develop harm reduction strategies. Greenfield and Paoli have developed a multi-step analytical framework to systematically assess the harms of crime and have applied it to a variety of complex crimes.10

The construction of business models using crime scripting is the first step within this framework. It is also the most important one since it serves as the building block for the others. In a forthcoming article in Acta Criminologica: African Journal of Criminology and Victimology, Dr. Letizia Paoli (KU Leuven) and I build upon this research and systematically assess the harms associated with the Nigerian piracy manifestation.

References and further reading

Cornish, Derek B. 1994. The procedural analysis of offending and its relevance for situational prevention, in Clarke, R.V. (Ed.), Crime Prevention Studies 3. Monsey: Criminal Justice Press.

Dehghanniri, Hashem and Borrion, Herve. 2019. Crime scripting: A systematic review. European Journal of Criminology,

Forsyth, Craig J., Gisclair, Kay H. & Forsyth, York A. (2009). Waterborne crime: Examining contemporary piracy. Deviant Behavior, 30: 669-679,

Greenfield, Victoria and Paoli, Letizia. (2013). A framework to assess the harms of crimes. British Journal of Criminology, 53: 864-885,

Hastings, Justin V. (2012). Understanding maritime piracy syndicate operations. Security Studies, 21(4): 683-721,

International Maritime Bureau Regional Piracy Center (IMB). (1992). IMB Annual Piracy Report. Kuala Lumpur: International Maritime Bureau Regional Piracy Center.

Peters, Bryan C. (2020). Nigerian piracy: Articulating business models using crime script analysis. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice,

Petrossian, Gohar A. & Pezzella, Frank S. (2018). IUU fishing and seafood fraud: Using crime script analysis to inform intervention. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 679(1): 121-139,

Shane, J.M., Piza, E.L., & Mandala, M. 2015. Situational crime prevention and worldwide piracy: A cross-continent analysis. Crime Science, 4(21): 1–13,

Shane, M., & Magnuson, S., 2016. Successful and unsuccessful pirate attacks worldwide: a situational approach. Justice Quarterly, 33(4): 682-707,

About the author

Bryan Peters recently completed an MSc in criminology at KU Leuven (Belgium). For his thesis research he systematically assessed the harms of Nigerian piracy. Prior to his studies in Belgium he spent over 15 years as a criminal investigator and administrator with a large law enforcement and corrections agency in New Orleans, Louisiana. He also holds an MA in political science (with a concentration in international relations) from the University of New Orleans and a BS in political science (also with a concentration in international relations) from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. He recently published an article in the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice and has another, co-authored with Dr. Letizia Paoli (KU Leuven), currently in press with Acta Criminologica: African Journal of Criminology and Victimology, focusing on the harms of Nigerian piracy. His research interests include maritime piracy, ‘blue crimes,’ harm reduction and crime prevention.

For a PDF of the commentary, please click here

Why are more small boats crossing the English Channel – and why are border forces struggling to stop them?

By Tim Edmunds and Scott Edwards

The number of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats has increased significantly – up to 4,343 this year compared with 857 in the same period last year. The number of lurid headlines calling for action has also increased significantly but the issue is not always well understood. Calls to strengthen UK border security at sea often misapprehend the tensions and difficulties involved.

There is a reason more boats are suddenly arriving now. It is a direct consequence of a series of disruptions to the established routes, both legal and illegal, by which refugees and asylum seekers have sought to enter the UK. Legal options have been curtailed with the reported suspension of the refugee resettlement scheme due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Clandestine routes have also been disrupted by pandemic restrictions, with less freight being moved between France and the UK and fewer flights taking place.

For migrants fleeing often extreme insecurity or deprivation, getting to the UK offers a chance of security. When safer routes have closed or become more difficult, small boats have become the most viable option for desperate people. They offer a solution of sorts, albeit one that is fraught with danger.

A testing time for maritime security

The crossings highlight the different problems at play in UK maritime security and the difficult and sometimes contradictory demands these place on UK government agencies.

The first of these is humanitarian. The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and vulnerable people attempting to cross it in small and overcrowded boats do so at considerable risk to their lives.

The UK has both moral and legal obligations to protect the safety of lives at sea in its extensive maritime Search and Rescue Zone. Such tasks are the responsibility – indeed the whole mandate – of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Royal National Lifeboat Association (RNLI) among others.

The second is the need to patrol the UK’s borders – a politically charged issue in recent years. The arrival of these small boats places fresh strains on cash strapped local authorities responsible for looking after the people who come in on them at a time when demands on their resources are already high. Border policing at sea is the responsibility of UK Border Force in collaboration with local police forces and other agencies.

The third pressure is organised crime. While migrants themselves are the most visible people in this situation, their movements are often facilitated by organised criminal groups in the UK, Belgium and France. These groups provide the boats and instructions to the migrants. In places like the Mediterranean, the networks smuggling people also smuggle illicit goods. There is concern this could also happen in this case.

So any maritime security enforcement that targets migrants also needs to be backed up by investigations into the criminal networks that enable these movements. The National Crime Agency leads Project INVIGOR to tackle this problem.

UK maritime security agencies face the difficult task of navigating between these three problems: protecting lives at sea, policing UK borders and addressing the organised networks that facilitate these movements. Doing so is not easy, not least because each of the organisations involved may be working on a different problem with different priorities.

Anecdotally, such differences have led to tensions between agencies and problems of coordination. Adding the navy to the mix, as has been proposed, may add some extra capacity, but will do little to resolve these underlying tensions.

What should be done?

Maritime security and policing has historically been neglected in the UK and there are key capacity gaps that need addressing in the context of the country’s exit from the EU and evolving challenges at sea.

There is a need to invest in new patrol and surveillance assets, not just for search and rescue at sea and policing the UK’s borders, but also to counter other maritime threats and blue crimes such as illegal fishing or narcotics trafficking by sea. Strengthening coordination and trust building between agencies is critical in order to manage these demands.

Cooperation with EU partners, particularly France, is also vital both in handling the problem of small boats at sea, but also to tackle the criminal networks that facilitate these movements. Despite his Darth Vader-like job title, the new Clandestine Channel Threat Commander is in actual fact a well-respected civil servant with significant cross-agency maritime experience and sensitivity. His appointment shows that the UK is taking maritime security more seriously.

Either way, the UK’s moral and legal responsibilities to protect life at sea must not be compromised by politically driven demands to strengthen maritime borders. Historically, the UK has a proud record in maritime search and rescue, but the risk of a tragedy is real if crowded and unsafe boats are forcibly turned away at sea.

Between 2014 and 2018, the Mediterranean became a graveyard for an estimated 19,000 people attempting to make it to Europe by sea. The same thing must not happen in the English Channel.

Even so, maritime security responses alone cannot substitute for sustainable migration policy. In the absence of such measures and legal options for entering the UK, desperate people will continue to do desperate things and adaptive criminal networks will help them to do so. In essence, any long-term solution to the problems posed by migration at sea is ultimately likely to lie on the land.

Photo by US Coastguard

Originally published in The Conversation

For a PDF, click here

Mauritius oil spill: Was the government unprepared?

The devastating oil spill that wreaked havoc on Mauritius’ coastline raises the question of whether the response by the government was appropriate. Was the country unprepared for a disaster of this scale? Were officials over-confident or misjudged the risk?

Evidence indicates that Mauritius was very well prepared; the event did not come as a surprise. Importantly, the country dealt with similar incidents very successfully before. Yet, a public inquiry will have to address a number of questions.

The disaster response

The Mauritius disaster unfolded in the evening of July 25th. The bulk carrier MV Wakashio grounded on its way from China to Brazil close to the shore of Mauritius. The causes are subject of an ongoing investigation.

First analyses indicate that weather was not the problem. Yet, the vessel deviated from the usual course that traffic in the region takes. The ship was on a collision course.

No oil spilled at the grounding. The Mauritius coast guard took preventive actions. The government activated its National Oil Spill Contingency Plan the next day.

Mauritius oil spill
Photo by European Space Agency

By the 28th of July, the Dutch salvage company Smit Salvage had been contracted to work with local logistics giant CELERO to keep the MV Wakashio afloat and pump out the over 4,000 tons of oil and diesel. When the first out of four tugboats arrived three days later, the recovery operation was ready to begin.

The responsible minister of environment said that he was confident that all “necessary precautionary measures to prevent any kind of pollution at sea” had been taken.  

The weather conditions were against the minister’s plans. The recovery operation was put on halt. The sea was too rough.

By August 5th observers spotted some minor oil sheen around the vessel. The “the risk of oil spill was still low”, the minister argued.

Only hours later, the MV Wakashio flooded and started sinking the next morning. Oil started to spill into the sea at a high rate. As a result, the disaster that is by now well documented unfolded. Government officials radically changed their tone.

ship sinking in Mauritius
Photo by Historic Mauritius

In reaction, the prime minister not only declared a “state of environment emergency”, but also said that the nation did not have “the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships.” The minister of fisheries, told international news media, “This is the first time that we are faced with a catastrophe of this kind and we are insufficiently equipped to handle this problem.

The foreign minister called upon the UN, the EU, India its neighbor France, as well other countries and organizations for emergency assistance.

These public statements by governmental officials raise the questions whether authorities were unaware about the risk and unprepared.

Mauritius was prepared

A look into the archives reveals, that the government was anything than unprepared. The opposite seems the case. It shows that until the disaster, Mauritius was the ‘poster’ boy of regional oil spill prevention.

Mauritius was one of the first African countries to finalize in 1990 an oil spill contingency plan with support from the International Maritime Organization and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Between 1998 and 2003, Mauritius was one of the beneficiaries of the ‘Western Indian Ocean Island Oil Spill Contingency Planning’ project, funded with 4 million US$ and run by the World Bank. Through the assistance of the project, the government updated the national contingency plan. Workshops and training were conducted, and a regional agreement signed.

The ‘Marine Highway Development and Prevention Project’ running from 2007 to 2012 continued this work. Funded by the Global Environmental Facility with 11 million US$, the country received more training in oil spill prevention and reviewed the plan. After the end of this project Mauritius received training under the UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme and the Nairobi Convention.

In addition, the country is also one of the main beneficiaries of the MASE project of the European Union under which maritime security structures are developed for the region.

the rescue operation
Photo by Historic Mauritius

As part of these projects, between 2003 and 2012, the country held five larger exercises and drills on oil spill prevention. Moreover, Mauritius had plans to conduct an exercise later this year.

In short, the country benefited from quite substantial capacity building assistance by the United Nations family and other actors. Governmental representatives regularly participated in workshops and conducted training exercises.

Level of Preparedness

Only some months before the disaster occurred, governmental officials attended a workshop on the theme. In March 2020 the UN Environment Programme organised the workshop on ‘Cooperation in preparedness and response to marine pollution incidents’ in Zanzibar.

As the records show, representatives from the ministry of environment and the ministry of fisheries of Mauritius attended. They gave a presentation on the countries “national oil spill preparedness status”.

The records of the meeting reveal, first, that officials were very well aware that the country is at a high risk of oil spills due to the vicinity of one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Second, it documents that the country had a range of sophisticated planning, response and disaster assessment tools.

Third, the Mauritian officials highlighted that not all elements of the strategy were very practical, and that some components of it were missing, such as a wildlife response plan.

The presenters emphasized that regional cooperation was not working very well, and that the country has too “limited resources in terms of funds and human capacity”.  

Photo by Matt Tse

Earlier incidents

In disaster response, a good plan is not enough. Practical experience matters. Did Mauritian authorities encounter any real life incidents? While not necessarily at the scale of the MV Wakashio incident, authorities had to deal with two major cases in the past years.

In April 2005 a collision occurred off Port Louis between the MSC Katie and the MV Nordsun. The MSC Katie sustained cracks and was grounded on a reef to avoid sinking. Mauritian authorities successfully prevented an oil spill.

An incident that was very similar to the grounding of the MV Wakashio occurred in June 2016.  The MV Benita went aground not to far from the site of the current oil spill.

While the vessel was damaged, a salvage company was quick on site. The contractors pumped the fuel out of the vessel, and only a very minor spill occurred. The company tugged the MV Benita away to India. On route the vessel sank.

As a result, Mauritius was not only aware of the risk and had elaborated planning tools, authorities also had experience with incidents of this kind.

Is this the explanation why the minister of environment was so confident that all was under control? It is likely the case.

The Mauritius oil spill tells us what can happen even if you are well prepared. Planning does not always go as intended. Capacity building and training has its limits.

Photo by Matt Tse

A public inquiry: Questions to ask

Mauritius will need to launch a public inquiry into the accident. The investigation will certainly establish that the government’s response was not perfect. It will identify areas in which the agencies could have performed better.

First, the authorities had stocked an insufficient amount of containment equipment such as booms. The response had to wait for equipment to arrive or rely on the improvised devices made by volunteers.

Second, was the right salvage company chosen and did the Dutch experts have the right strategy? The ship owner Nagashiki Shipping contracted the company. Yet, It is important to know how the experts cooperated and coordinated with the coast guard and the government overall.

A third major question concerns whether maritime situational awareness could have detected the ship early on. Better maritime surveillance might have recognized the ship earlier. We need to know if the disaster could have been prevented by a coastguard interception.

Finally, the regional dimension needs to be looked at. Why did the regional mechanisms for maritime security and environmental disaster developed in the diverse capacity building projects had no role at all in the response? Would it have made a difference if the government relied on the expertise of organizations such as the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Center ?

Learning these lessons will help other countries to prepared for and prevent the next disaster. Moreover, the lessons might lead to a better integration of Maritime security and environmental efforts in capacity building. Perhaps they will even assist in building a less fragmented regional architecture in the Western Indian Ocean.

This article was originally published under an open access license as SafeSeas Commentary. A PDF can be found here.

Beirut explosion: the disaster was exceptional but events leading up to it were not

By Scott Edwards and Christian Bueger

At the time of writing at least 100 people have lost their lives and a further 4,000 have been wounded following an explosion in the Port of Beirut. While the actual cause remains uncertain, the tragedy calls to attention the tremendous consequences of a lack of port security.

The explosion, on August 4, at around 6pm local time, appears to have been fuelled by 2,750 tons of the highly reactive chemical ammonium nitrate. The chemical had been the cargo on a ship, the the MV Rhosus, which entered the port at Beirut in 2013 due to a lack of seaworthiness and was prohibited from sailing. After the ship’s owner abandoned the vessel soon afterwards, the ammonium nitrate remained in a storage facility in Beirut’s port.

While the disaster itself was exceptional, the events leading up to it were not. Hazardous material is shipped across the world’s oceans on a daily basis. It is often mishandled or illegally traded. Abandoned containers of hazardous goods are found regularly in ports.

While maritime security tends to focus on preventing high-profile events such as piracy, terrorism or cyber-attacks, all too often it is daily mishandling that makes disasters possible. Part of preventing disasters such as what has happened in Beirut will mean strengthening port management and addressing crimes such as smuggling and corruption.

Abandoned ships

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has recorded 97 cases of abandoned ships and crews since 2017. Ships are abandoned by their owners if a vessel is no longer lucrative to maintain, or perhaps if the ship has been stopped by authorities and fined. While the situation of the seafarers aboard these ships is often tragic, as they may receive little pay or even food for months, what happens to the load of the vessels is often unclear.

And the IMO number only reflects the cases of ships – we know little about how many containers stand abandoned in ports around the world.

A UN report indicates that this number may be large. Containers often lie abandoned within ports, sometimes even by design, fuelled by criminal activities such as waste smuggling and corruption. Despite some efforts to counter this, the issue remains widespread and there are continued obstacles to tackling it.

International waste trade

Shipping companies often sail to Asia with empty containers, as much of the flow of trade is from Asia to Europe. As a result, they are willing to take low-value and high-volume bookings on the initial leg.

This has facilitated a burgeoning waste trade and with it a smuggling sector, where illegal forms of waste such as unrecyclable plastics are shipped from western countries to countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Thousands of these containers lie abandoned once they reach the port.

Much of the waste is less dangerous than the ammonium nitrate that fuelled the Beirut explosion, but it can still have dreadful effects. Plastics, for example, can cause hazards if not properly disposed of. Much of it ends up in the ocean, fuelling the ocean plastic crisis.

In 2019, Sri Lankan authorities discovered more than 100 abandoned containers in the port of Colombo. They contained clinical waste, potentially including human remains, and were leaking fluids. The risk that the containers had contaminated the ground and surface water in the two years they had lay in port unnoticed fuelled public health concerns. Sri Lanka has been able to investigate this problem – but it is likely that, in many cases, abandonment goes undiscovered.


The abandonment of dangerous containers in ports is not a new problem. Since the 2000s there have been significant efforts to increase security levels in ports through surveillance, training and safety protocols. In light of the continuing abandonment problem, we know that these measures – and their implementation – are insufficient.

First, we have to start seeing the smuggling of waste and the abandoning of ships and containers as major offences. They should be seen as important parts of the blue crime and maritime security agenda. Appropriate legislation is needed to criminalise them. An international database for such crimes is required, as is transnational cooperation to address them.

Second, corruption in ports plays a key part in ensuring that abandonment goes unnoticed. It needs to be addressed with a concerted international effort.

Finally, increased efforts in building the capacity of ports to deal with hazardous waste, to detect smuggling and to deal with abandonment cases are needed. In particular, this will be necessary for ports which have limited resources and are common destinations for abandoned containers, such as ports in Asia and Africa.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Maritime Organization and the European Union already conduct port security capacity building work, in particular in Africa. More of this kind of work is needed.

Beirut has shown us the kind of impact a port disaster can have on a city and its inhabitants. Lessons must be learned to make sure a tragedy like this does not happen again.

Photo by Yoniw

For a PDF of the commentary, please click here

This commentary was originally published on The Conversation

Prof. Bueger is a professor of international relations at the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the directors of SafeSeas and the project lead of AMARIS. He has been studying issues of maritime security, counter-piracy operations, capacity building and maritime domain awareness since 2010.  During his time at Cardiff University (2012-2018), he was the principal investigator of the project Counter-piracy Governance and the principal investigator of the Lessons Learned Consortium of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. He has worked as consultant for the UNODC Maritime Crime Programme or the Indian Ocean Commission. Further information is available on his personal website.

SafeSeas researchers comment on Beirut explosion

In the afternoon of August 4th, a major explosion in the port of Beirut killed over 100 people and left thousands wounded. Given the importance of the port for Lebanon’s economy, the consequences will be felt for years.

SafeSeas researcher Christian Bueger and Scott Edwards have written a series of commentaries as well as gave interviews to the international media. The comments aim at contextualising the disaster and analysing its consequences for global trade and port management. They particular highlight the link to abandoned ships and containers, as well as the broader challenges posed by the trade in hazardous materials.

The first comment was published by The Conversation, the day after the disaster. Read the piece titled “Beirut explosion: the disaster was exceptional but events leading up to it were not – researchers.” We argue to interpret the event in the light of the broader problem of abandoned ships and container.

The second comment focuses on Africa. Recognising that African ports are particularly vulnerable, we argue for dedicated capacity building work to address the handling of hazardous material and waste crimes. The article titled “African ports need to learn the lessons of Beirut” was published by African Business Magazine on August 6th.

A third comment published with The Diplomat on August 7th, investigates the consequences for Southeast Asia, arguing that ports in the region have struggled in the past and now need to step up there game. Read “The Beirut Disaster Is a Wake-up Call for Southeast Asia. The devastating explosion in Beirut reminds us how vulnerable Southeast Asian ports might be.

TOCAS Q&A with Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research

In mid-June, the TOCAS team, Professor Christian Bueger, Dr Scott Edwards, and Professor Tim Edmunds, sat down for a Q&A discussion to share their work on transnational organised crime at sea with the Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research (PaCCS).

PaCCS was created in order to respond to the challenge of addressing threats to security through a research community, and presently focuses on the core areas of conflict, cybersecurity, and transnational organised crime. TOCAS has received funding through the Transnational organised crime: Deepening and broadening our understanding 2018 call from PaCCS and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

The transcript of Q&A can be found at: .

A video can also be found at:

Part 1:

Part 2:

The Q&A focused on the work that the TOCAS team is currently undertaking to better understand blue crime and the responses to it, and addressed questions such as why should we pay more attention to #crime at sea? How is the #covid19 pandemic transforming blue crime?