By Michelle Sartor and Young Soo YangEarly this morning, reports of possible stowaways in a container ship caused federal agents and media to converge at Port Newark. The massive response reflects the heightened security surrounding U.S. ports since the attacks of Sept. 11. Since then, sweeping changes in national security measures have put in place a layered and interlocking system that involves the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs, various law enforcement agencies and immigration officials, coordinated and grouped by the Department of Homeland Security.
When it comes to stowaways who reach the U.S. by air and sea, the approach to unlawful entry is not as simple as when crossing the border over land. Stowaways are taken to a nearby detention center, where they are expected to be deported. To avoid immediate deportation, stowaways could request asylum and are permitted to remain in the U.S. while their requests for asylum are considered. If any have relatives in this country, they could also petition to stay here.
Stowaways are not new. Reports go back to the 1800s of ship crew members finding unwanted passengers with cargo. Even in recent years, stowaways have been found on ships and airplanes.
The end result isn’t always peaceful. A group of nine African stowaways were found on the cargo ship McRuby in 1992 by crew members. The crew murdered eight of them. The sole survivor was Kingsley Ofosu of Ghana who witnessed his brother and friends killed but was able to hide and escape the crew members who were afraid they would lose their jobs if they arrived in Europe with the unwanted passengers. The TV movie “Deadly Voyage,” which aired in 1996, chronicled Ofosu’s ordeal. A book was also written on the subject.
Another tragic ending happened Jan. 15, 2011 when ninth-grader Qasim Siddique fell to his death after stowing away on an Air Blue flight that was flying from Allama Igbal International Airport in Lahore to Dubai.
Investigators said Siddique fell from the plane during takeoff after the pilot reported a malfunction with the plane’s wheels.
A 20-year-old stowaway from Romania successfully traveled from Vienna to Britain in the undercarriage of a plane in June 2010. Officials took him into custody at Heathrow Airport after he fell out of the landing gear, suffering minor injuries. He was freed after the ordeal.
In Montreal, two men were taken into custody this past April after sneaking onto the hold of a cargo ship that came from western Africa. The men were deemed healthy and referred to immigration officials.
Not all reports of stowaways end up materializing. In September of 2000, the crew of the cargo ship called the Manoa traveling from Alaska to California reported hearing pounding from inside a shipping container. The ship’s captain diverted the vessel to the nearest port where U.S. officials found 11 tons of human hair meant for wigs instead of stowaways.