In April 2006, Seattle port authorities discovered a cargo container on the MV Rotterdam with 22 Chinese nationals inside. They’d smuggled themselves across the Pacific from Shanghai, spending two weeks without light or fresh air.
According to the Seattle Times, the 40-foot container held blankets and clothing, food and water, tools for breaking out of the container and a makeshift toilet. The security guards who found them said the smell inside the space was “overwhelming.”
Smuggling episodes like this have been around as long as humans have engaged in international shipping. Sometimes it’s humans; most times it’s illegal goods.
Since the advent of the standardized cargo container systems in the middle of the 20th century, however, shipping has grown. About 90 percent of non-bulk cargo travels via standardized shipping containers. Smugglers have taken advantage of them.
According to the World Shipping Council, over 17 million containers make continuous trips every year on the almost 5,000 container ships in the global fleet. The U.S. alone receives about 35 million containers according to some estimates. That’s a lot of opportunities for smuggling.
In fact, the 22 Chinese nationals in 2006 was just one example just in Seattle. The Seattle Times also reported that 37 Chinese came across the Pacific aboard two separate vessels in another incident in 2000. It was the same kind of scenario, except when the ships docked that time three of the stowaways were dead.
Just a few days ago, USAToday reported that a ship smuggling Africans to Saudi Arabia sank in the Red Sea off the coast of Sudan, killing almost 200 people. Supposedly the ship had caught fire.
And as far as illegal goods go, who knows what the numbers really are. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as well as other national and international bodies, are seeking to stop smuggling through tighter container control.
According to the UNODC, the global fleet transports some 420 million containers each year, of which authorities inspect only 2 percent.
“This makes smuggling via containers increasingly attractive for criminals and more challenging to detect,” commented UNODC head Yury Fedotov.
On consecutive days this April, units with trained dogs discovered 290 kilos of cocaine destined for Spain in a container of bananas and 1,000 kilos of cocaine hidden with pineapples on their way to Belgium.
Smuggling probably isn’t going away anytime soon, either goods or people. With tighter controls, authorities might be able to curb it. But as long as people are willing to ride 15 days in a container with no light or fresh air, it’s going to be hard.