Sovereignty for sail: illegal use of Samoan flag rising but Govt. powerless

Six ships suspected of illegal activity, including the alleged breaching of international sanctions against Iran, are sailing on international seas under the Samoan flag – and the Government says it is powerless to act against them.

A Samoa Observer investigation has established that the illegal use of the Samoan flag on the high seas is widespread and ongoing, one year after the Samoa Government alerted the international community to the fraudulent use of its flag.  

One cargo ship this newspaper found to be registered to Samoa, the Pars Fortune, was on Sunday night local time reporting its location as being at anchor in the Iranian port of Asalouyeh.  

Iranian cargo vessels flying other nations' flags (which are less likely to attract suspicion from customs) have been recently linked to attempts to smuggle oil into Syria in violation of international sanctions. 

Data from international shipping registers show the Pars Fortune is not alone: figures seen by this newspaper this week show that five other vessels are currently flying the Samoan flag despite not being recognised by the Government.  

"The question of oversight by the [Ministry of Works, Transport and Infrastructure] of those overseas vessels is an impossible task," said C.E.O. Magele Hoe Viali.

The number of vessels fraudulently sailing under the Samoan flag soared in 2018, and is linked to the issuing of ship registrations by Indian company Ascent Naval, which briefly did business with the Samoa Government but had its license revoked in 2017.

Shipping registry data shows that the number of ships registered to Samoa more than doubled to reach 15 that year. 

Responding from Singapore, Magale said there was a time in 2016 when Samoa considered an open registry, which would have allowed ships to adopt the Samoan flag more freely.

“However the Express[ion] of interest [to establish an open registry was cancelled in 2017," she said.

"Ascent [Naval] had illegally registered vessels despite the cancellation".

It is not known which company has provided the six vessels currently flying the flag with Samoan papers. But at least four websites openly offered to register ships under the Samoan flag for a fee and via companies purportedly based in Thailand, Pakistan and the Ukraine. 

“Fraudulent registration, fake certificates etc., are all scams – and the reason for this business may be as simple as criminals looking for a way to get money for whatever illicit activity they see potential for making money from," a spokeswoman for the International Maritime Organisation said. 

(Samoa is a member of the I.M.O., a specialised agency of the United Nations that is responsible for measures to improve the safety and security of international shipping, and to prevent marine pollution from ships.)

The I.M.O., in response to questions from this newspaper, says they rely on information provided by its member states when they have evidence of any fraudulent activity. 

Last week, Reuters news agency reported that an Iranian cargo carrier Hayan left from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on June 3 and set sail for Karachi on Pakistan’s coast.

Ship tracking data from maritime risk analysts Windward shows that on June 7 it changed its name to Mehri II and its flag to that of Samoa, as it made its way towards Karachi port.

Six days later, the vessel conducted a ship-to-ship transfer of its unknown cargo further up Pakistan’s coast.

The ship then returned home, changing its flag back to Iran and its name back to Hayan, Reuters reported.

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