Cruise ship crime wave

Crime scene tape marks off the area where a cruise ship has docked. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Glossy images of sun-soaked balconies, glitzy shows, and exotic destinations explain the continued popularity of cruise holidays, but they mask some disturbing statistics on violent crime, sexual assaults, and missing persons

Cruise is one of the biggest growth sectors in tourism and the number of passengers worldwide has risen significantly since 2009. Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), the world’s largest cruise industry trade association, predicted 30 million travellers in 2019 and expected the number to rise in 2020. However, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) impact may drastically curtail this. The United Kingdom alone accounts for more than 2 million cruise tourists each year.

Slick adverts showing off calm blue seas, luxury accommodation, and 24/7 entertainment might draw in customers; however, they fail to highlight a long-standing problem with serious crime, including cases of missing passengers, violent and sexual assaults, and theft.

According to the 2019 report from the US Department of Transportation, cruise operators recorded an unprecedented crime wave last summer, with 35 sexual assaults, two disappearances, and five thefts of more than USD10,000 reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) between July and September. This total of 46 serious crimes exceeded any other three-month period since 2016.

Big cruise ships can carry upwards of 5,000 passengers and feature facilities such as a gym, a hair salon, and restaurants. However, these ships have no independent police force and victims of crimes must rely on onboard security teams, who often have little training, no ability to arrest and interrogate, and no legal basis to take action.

The situation is compounded by the fact that many vessels are flagged in countries that are too small and impoverished to effectively deal with crimes or follow through with prosecutions. As a result, victims and their families face the trauma of never seeing attackers face justice, particularly if the ship was in international waters when the crime was committed.

“Anything would be better than the situation at the moment,” said Anne Warren, CEO at Supporting Justice, a consultancy that helps organisations who work with victims and witnesses. “Cruise operators need to be challenged and encouraged to see that improvements are in their best interests. They and the IMO seem reluctant to act and not take responsibility. We need to raise awareness; if people started to question what would happen if they were affected by a crime in the middle of the ocean, perhaps they could come to realise that when a cruise a ship leaves UK waters they are effectively entering a fairly lawless place where crimes against them, even serious crimes such as rape or sexual assault are unlikely to be effectively investigated.”

Unknown quantity

The true scale of serious crime on board cruise ships is difficult to gauge due to a historic lack of reliable statistics. The situation changed in 2010, when former US president Barack Obama signed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) into law as part of a range of measures designed to improve cruise safety. The CVSSA makes it mandatory for passenger vessels embarking from or disembarking in US ports to report eight specific serious crimes to the FBI. The crimes cover sexual assault, homicide, kidnapping, theft of anything over USD10,000, suspicious death, assault with serious bodily injury, firing or tampering with a vessel, and missing US national.

However, some claim this form of reporting failed to paint a true picture because of how cruise lines categorised incidents on board. According to Ross Klein, a cruise industry expert who had testified before the US Senate, cruise operators exploit the grey area in describing crimes to avoid having to report them.

“The CVSSA tells cruise lines what crimes they have to report, and if a crime doesn’t fall into those categories, it doesn’t get reported,” Klein told SAS. “For example, what is the grey area between an assault [which does not have to be reported as a crime] and an assault with serious bodily injury? You can have your head bashed up against the wall and suffer a concussion and the cruise line can say that’s just assault because they are the ones who make the determination. The data from the FBI only reflects what the cruise line has labelled incidents to be.”

Man-overboard incidents might appear to fit into the missing US national category, yet according to Klein, if the individual was seen falling overboard then the cruise line can argue that the person is not really missing.

Sexual assault accounts for a disproportionately high number of serious crimes on board cruise ships and, disturbingly, many involved minors. A congressional report in 2013 found that minors were victims in one-third of all sexual assault cases reported to the FBI.

Over the past 20 years, US maritime lawyer Jim Walker has represented more than 100 women and/or children who claim to have been sexually assaulted on cruise ships, including vessels run by Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Lines, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. He said that approximately one-third of his cases involved children.

Despite his decision to only follow-up on crimes that had strong basis and compelling evidence, just two of some 100 cases resulted in a prosecution of a shipboard rapist. He claimed this is largely a result of the inadequate investigative approach taken by the FBI. Under US law, the agency is required to investigate crimes committed against US citizens on cruise ships that leave or enter US ports. “The FBI is singularly conservative and has strict criteria,” said Walker. “If they investigate a crime and a woman was over-served alcohol and then raped, they actually have criteria that recommends the crime is not prosecuted because the victim was intoxicated. That’s the kind of craziness that we see with the FBI.”

There is a clear correlation between excessive alcohol consumption and crime on cruise ships, particularly with cruises aimed at a younger demographic operating out of Australia and the United States. “It’s a totally different dynamic when you go on one of those ships. It’s a place where there are going to be bar fights and brawls, and the cruise industry is really not set-up to handle that problem,” the maritime lawyer described.

For its part, the cruise industry continues to assert that the safety of passengers and crew is a number one priority, as CLIA told SAS, “Although rare, crime that does occur on board cruise ships is taken very seriously and is subject to strict reporting procedures involving international, national, and local law enforcement agencies. These legal requirements – combined with a system of transparency as well as a commitment to provide passengers with the best possible cruise experiences – create a powerful incentive for cruise lines to both adopt and implement policies meant to protect those on board.”

First responders

If victims are to be properly safeguarded, they must be able to report alleged crimes while on board. Furthermore, crimes must be properly investigated, crime scenes must be secured, forensic evidence should be gathered, and support staff be made available to victims.

Cruise shipowners do employ security personnel to oversee crime, but they are not independent, do not possess specific training, and do not have a legal duty of care to uphold. This has led to several cases of alleged negligence when investigating crimes.

“The business model of any cruise line is to hire as few security personnel as they can get away with,” said Klein. “There are no laws mandating a certain number of security guards or a certain type of training. In my view there are an insufficient number of security guards, they are undertrained.”

Warren cited Rebecca Coriam, a British crew member who disappeared from cruise ship Disney Wonder in 2011 and is still missing, as an example. She provided support to the family in the aftermath of the incident, which had significant media coverage.

After hearing of their daughter’s disappearance, her parents flew to Los Angeles and boarded the vessel before the Bahamian police (the flag state) arrived to investigate. “The parents couldn’t tell anything from the state of the cabin because their daughter’s belongings had been black sacked [thrown out] and the security team had cleared out and cleaned her cabin. It’s often the case that security, such as it is, on cruise ships, fails to preserve crime scenes to prevent contamination, something you would expect any regular police force to do,” Warren explained.

Security teams are the first responders on cruise vessels, but ultimate jurisdiction over crime depends on where it occurred. If the ship is in port, or within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the coast, then local authorities have jurisdiction. If the ship is beyond that coastal limit then, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, jurisdiction falls upon the vessel’s flag state.

Most cruise ships are registered in flag states such as Panama and the Bahamas, so criminal investigations and prosecutions are subject to these countries’ national laws.
“The problem is these flag states just haven’t got capable marine administrations,” said captain Michael Lloyd, a marine consultant and author of several papers on cruise crime.

“The Bahamian Maritime Authority has over 700 cruise ships, yet their marine department comprises of just six guys sitting in an office in London. Their police force isn’t capable of tackling crime in their own country, let alone on board the hundreds of cruise vessels operating around the world.” According to Walker, Bahamian investigators may even work directly with the cruise line’s defence lawyers or risk management team.

Held to account

Plotting a more positive course for the cruise industry is likely to require a more robust response from cruise lines, legislators, and other parties. The Cruise Passenger Protection Act (CPPA), introduced in mid-November 2019, reinforces passenger safety and protections under the CVSSA legislation.

The CPPA requires cruise vessel owners to notify the FBI within four hours of an alleged incident. If an alleged crime occurred while the vessel was in a US port, the owner must notify the FBI before the ship departs. Cruise lines must fit video surveillance equipment in all passenger common areas and other open, public spaces on the vessel. Finally, these ships are required to integrate technology that can capture images and detect when a passenger has fallen overboard.

Victims organisations have tried, in the past, to pass legislation to require independent police officers on board. However, the cruise industry opposed this, arguing that state law enforcement has no jurisdiction over foreign-flagged cruise ships in international waters.

Captain Lloyd proposed an alternative solution to that dilemma: introduce a new maritime security officer grade, attained through formal training and certification processes. “These officers would be issued with a certificate by the ships’ flag state and have judicial powers under that administration to question passengers and make arrests. In other words, they would be independent of the vessel owner. Why this has not already been done is beyond me, although it’s clear the cruise industry doesn’t want it,” he commented.

The IMO has been repeatedly urged to strengthen its response to cruise crime. Cruise ships in international service must adhere to SOLAS and other international regulations as verified by the flag state, but what happens if they fail to comply? Does a port state control have a sufficiently strong presence to monitor how crimes are handled? “Flag states are not held to account by the IMO when they fail to investigate crimes properly,” captain Lloyd added. “The crux of the problem is the failure of the IMO to put in place effective legislation or monitor cruise lines’ response to crimes.”

With passengers often unaware of their rights in relation to crime when embarking on cruises, and cruise operators seemingly unwilling to acknowledge a problem for fear of a public backlash, the sun looks far from setting on this long-standing issue.