Asia-Pacific

Somali piracy takes heavy toll on Philippine sailors

Captain Caniete and family
Image caption Captain Caniete's baby son was born while he was held captive by Somali pirates

For the first four months of this year, Captain Alex Caniete was held hostage half a world away from his native Philippines.

His ship had been captured by Somali pirates as it approached the Gulf of Aden, and his old slow vessel was no match for the gun-toting pirates in their speedboat.

Capt Caniete is not the only Filipino affected by piracy.

"Every time there's a report of a ship hijacked off the coast of Somalia, almost always there's a Filipino involved," admits Deputy Foreign Minister Esteban Conejos.

"Since 2006, a total of 748 Filipinos, in 61 vessels, have been hijacked in this way."

Filipinos are not being particularly singled out by the pirates, it is just that so many people from the Philippines work in the maritime industry.

A third of all the world's seafarers are from the Philippines, so it is not surprising that there is another less welcome statistic - in the past year, more Filipinos have been taken hostage than any other nationality.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionTraining manager Angelo Tagle explains how mariners are taught how to beat the pirates

Ransom

Capt Caniete's ordeal began on a calm clear morning in mid-December. He first saw the pirate ship when it was still far from his vessel, and watched with terror as it gained speed and came closer.

"I was very nervous and my whole body was shaking," he says. "They were continuously firing on the ship. They even called on the radio: 'Captain, you did not stop your ship so I will kill you all.'"

After a six-hour chase, the pirates boarded the vessel, and with their AK-47s in hand they quickly overpowered the crew, forcing them to steer the ship to the Somali coastline.

The 24 Filipinos on board were then held there, with minimal food, while negotiations took place.

Capt Caniete was made to phone his company to say he would be killed if they did not pay a ransom - and also phone his ill and heavily pregnant wife to put pressure on her too, something he found very difficult to do.

"Sometimes I spoke to her quickly in our own language - just to give some comfort to her. But every time, they got mad and hit me."

He was also beaten by the pirates because they suspected that a coffee-maker he had brought with him on the ship was actually a satellite phone. In fact, it was a last-minute present from his wife, who thought he would miss cappuccinos while he was away.

The pirates left as suddenly as they arrived, one day at the end of April. And while Capt Caniete has no knowledge of what deal was struck to secure his release, he is very grateful for it.

But he wants his government, and the Combined Task Force - an international coalition force to prevent piracy - to make sure that every ship which travels to the Gulf of Aden or anywhere near Somali waters has adequate armed security.

Some nations already provide security escorts for ships in the area, but Mr Conejos acknowledges that this is not something the Philippine government can do.

"I don't think we can contribute naval assets, but we can contribute personnel who can help co-ordinate activities there," he says.

Piracy prevention

Image caption The control room is part of the anti-piracy training exercise

One step the Philippine government has taken is to insist that every Philippine seafarer undergoes mandatory anti-piracy training before they go to sea.

In a training room on the third floor of an office block near Manila Bay, a group of men are busy trying to avoid pirates.

They are using a simulation exercise that looks like an elaborate computer game. It has got a fully equipped control room, looking out on a projector screen image that clearly shows two boats approaching on the starboard side.

"We were not trained to fight the pirates, we were not trained to use guns, but we can train people to prevent pirates from coming on board," says Angelo Tagle, one of the managers at Exact Training Centre.

"The moment the pirates get on board, it's already a hopeless situation."

Image caption Hundreds of Filipinos have been taken hostage by Somali pirates

Despite the increasing risks of piracy, there does not seem to be any shortage of Filipinos wanting to apply for a job in the maritime industry.

The wages offered by the shipping companies provide a good standard of living here, and are one of only a few routes out of poverty for many Filipino families. Last year, Philippine seafarers managed to send almost $4bn (£2.5bn) back home - a vital part of the country's economy.

Even Capt Caniete is thinking of going back to sea.

Sitting in his home with his wife and children - including the young son born while he was being held captive - he confesses that working on a ship is his only way to continue earning a good salary.

"This, for me, is the only job where I can give my family a better future," he says.

But before he goes back, he's decided to take some time to attend shipping conferences and raise international awareness of the dangers which Philippine seafarers like him are facing.

After all, Somali piracy is an international problem. Capt Caniete's ship was a Liberian-owned vessel, registered in Panama, managed by a Greek company and the Philippine crew was taking corn from Brazil to Iran.

All these different stakeholders stand to lose money if the ship is hijacked - but the Filipinos are the ones who are risking their lives.

More on this story