The Invisible Phenomenon of Child Piracy

In March 2011, Indian naval forces operating in the Arabian Sea captured the Mozambique-flagged fishing vessel Vega 5. Somali pirates had kidnapped the trawler’s original crew several months earlier.  They subsequently refurbished the stolen craft into an operationally significant ‘mothership’. Of the 61 marauders who were arrested during the Indian raid, an astonishing 25 persons – or some 40% of the entire crew – were determined to be under the age of 15. Indeed, ensuing reports revealed that four of the pirates could not have been older than 11.

Unfortunately, the recruitment and use of children by piratical gangs is becoming common. During a recent visit to the autonomous Somali region of Puntland, former UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, was told by a jailed adult pirate that his colleagues and superiors were increasingly reliant upon child recruits when attempting to seize ships for ransom. Many of the adults who are responsible for directing piracy operations only do so from their homes on land, rather than from motherships on the high seas. As such, according to Ms. Coomaraswamy, the individuals actually sent out to, “…do the dangerous stuff are the young children, between the ages of 15, 16 and 17.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that the same is true for piracy operations in the Gulf of Guinea and South-East Asia.

The Halifax-based Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative has determined that child pirates and child combatants share a great deal in common, especially in terms of their perceived strategic, operational and tactical value. Like warlords, pirate commanders recruit children because they are vulnerable and easily manipulated; fearless and ignorant of the long-term consequences of their actions; inexpensive to maintain; plentiful in developing countries most afflicted by piracy; small in stature and therefore nimble; easily indoctrinated; largely invulnerable to legal proceedings; and because they pose a moral challenge to their enemies.

While many children are forcibly recruited into piratical activity, others may join ‘voluntarily’. Such voluntary enlistment, however, must be understood in terms of the limited choices and circumstances that are available in the child’s country. For example, children may view piracy as a means of bettering themselves if they are extremely poor, displaced from their home communities, separated from their families, denied access to educational or employment opportunities, or exposed to armed conflict.

Despite the fact that child maritime piracy is an increasingly common phenomenon, it remains critically under-acknowledged. For instance, there are no international legal instruments in place to prescribe the proper handling of child pirates captured at sea, nor are navies or private security firms explicitly trained on how to manage interactions with underage pirates.

Throughout 2013, the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative and the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project (DMPP) plan to unveil a number of projects aimed at raising awareness and addressing the problem of child maritime piracy, specifically amongst security sector actors.  This is the first of a series of entries pertaining to child piracy, to be published on the Broadsides forum.