POTOMAC, Maryland — Piracy has never been a victimless crime. Many victims are hidden in plain sight. Western legend has often glamorized the image of the pirate in the forms of the mythical Blackbeard, the American sailor John Paul Jones or even Disney’s Captain Hook. The reality is a far cry from this idyllic, colorful image. Modern piracy is the tragic combination of poverty with fear, hunger and a desperate desire to survive. Pirates have endured starvation, family separation and a range of hardships across innumerable numbers. They are poor pirates.
How Poverty Leads to Piracy
Recently, studies and trials involving captured pirates have shed new light on the hardships that poverty has brought on. In some cases, poverty has effectively made piracy the sole option for some. One man claimed he had become a pirate after his only “son was kidnapped by a debtor to whom he owed $1,100.” Another claimed that it was the only way to support his family. Stories like these paint a harrowing picture of what life is like in such destitute conditions and how piracy may seem like the only escape for some.
When people are poor, hungry and desperate enough, they’ll do anything to feed themselves and their families. This has proved hugely beneficial for ISIS and other well-known terrorist organizations in countries like Iraq and Syria. In certain largely overlooked nations, however, this is integral to the recruitment of poor pirates, and Somalia is the epicenter.
In these poverty-stricken regions, incentives to become a pirate are surprisingly similar to traditional business ventures. “Foot soldiers” (the low-ranking pirates) are even being paid on commission in roughly the same amount (per ship) that many Americans can make in a year. There’s even a business-like hierarchy to the organization of the illicit trade. Those on top bankroll the sea endeavors and take larger cuts of the profits. Between 2005 and 2012, ransom profits from piracy were in excess of $400 million. The U.N. now believes that the threat of poverty ranks among the top motivators turning poor people into poor pirates. Even captured “pirates” themselves decry the concept, preferring to call themselves “fishermen.”
Possible Solutions to Poverty-Driven Piracy
Where to go from here? Some broad solutions have been based on the structure of piracy operations in their respective, often Somalian, hotspots. Among these are tightening border controls with countries known to harbor pirates as well as more closely monitoring the flow of money throughout their business operations. The most wide-spanning reform proposals simply encourage international efforts to alleviate poverty in regions known to be hotspots for piracy. This may sound like an overly broad solution, but even by U.N. standards, it would alleviate one of the top motivators of piracy as well as open up alternative opportunities for those who often have few other options.
However, perhaps the biggest reform would be the rejuvenation of Somalia as a state. This may happen sooner than people think. Last year, Somalia’s finance minister announced steps to begin rebuilding the “failed state’s” economy, restructure the national debt and restore international ties. In addition to the above reforms, recent talks between Somalia and the U.K. have resulted in a new counterterrorism initiative that will target the root of the piracy problem, hopefully, once and for all.
Poverty and conditions of destitution have often driven individuals in countries like Somalia to piracy. Hopefully, this trend will soon end. Piracy, along with its tragic undertones in poverty and survival, has hopefully met its match in a new, coordinated international effort.
– Bardia Memar