Supporting states to combat maritime crime in the Western Indian Ocean

A boarding team undertakes an operation as part of the simulated exercise in Seychelles. Photo: UNODC/Global Maritime Crime Programme.

Maritime crimes – crimes that are committed wholly or partly at sea – can threaten world trade, international security, and livelihoods. From piracy attacks on vessels and narcotics trafficking to the smuggling of migrants, maritime crimes affect countries all over the world. The Western Indian Ocean region is no exception.   

Drug trafficking through the Western Indian Ocean, a trafficking path termed the “Southern Route”, accounts for 17 per cent of all global drug seizures. Stretching from the Makran Coast of Iran and Pakistan all the way down to Eastern Africa, the impact of drug trafficking along the Southern Route can cause untold harm to countries and people, potentially fuelling and prolonging conflicts, damaging mental health, and hindering sustainable development. 

Equally, cases of migrant smuggling present an acute threat to human lives across the region. With migrants motivated by an array of drivers, including climate change, economic instability, political unrest, persecution, and more– hundreds of thousands of people in the region have been displaced. Many of these migrants use maritime routes, and during these movements at sea, accidents, weather conditions, or even deliberate killings can cost the migrants their lives. Others survive the journey only to reach destinations where they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.   

Preventing and stopping these crimes at sea can therefore go a long way in protecting both individuals and societies. To assist countries in the region to address these threats, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Global Maritime Crime Programme facilitated two Maritime Rule of Law Exercises (MROLEX) from October to December 2022.   

National table-top exercises preceded the MROLEXs, during which UNODC trained country teams on the integration of maritime domain awareness (MDA), maritime law enforcement (MLE), marine maintenance and legal prosecution. Country teams then convened in Seychelles to participate in the exercise with their regional counterparts.   

Country teams from Comoros, Djibouti, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles took part in either a French or English language exercise where the skills and knowledge acquired in previous UNODC training courses were applied in a practical environment. These exercises were funded by the United States State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. 

Country teams were made up of MDA watch-standers (i.e., personnel making use of vessel detection systems to determine vessel identification), criminal prosecutors, MLE boarding teams, and maritime maintenance engineers. The maritime crime simulations allowed participants to work through the entire chain of events that need to be successfully completed in the process – from receipt of information about a suspect vessel through a safe and lawful boarding operation and on to an effective prosecution.   

Furthermore, because successfully preventing maritime crime often requires cross-border cooperation, participants transmitted information received from regional information-sharing centres – the Regional Coordination and Operations Centre (RCOC), located in Seychelles, and the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC), located in Madagascar.   

Leila Mohamed Ali, a representative from the prosecutor’s office of the Republic of Djibouti, described how the exercise gave her insight into the full scope of an operation to prevent maritime crime, noting that “It was instructive to see a boat that was stopped and searched by the competent authorities, because we as magistrates have only minutes to support the prosecution.”  

“This has been a good experience for those of us who undertake boarding operations,” said one officer from the Seychelles Special Forces. “It is often difficult for us to fully understand all the national components that play a role in these operations, for example the application of the law of the sea. However,” he continued, “it is important to get exposure to these elements in exercises like the MROLEX. We now understand why these considerations are important for us upon boarding vessels and when there are no grounds to do so.”  

The UNODC Global Maritime Crime Programme will continue to provide capacity building and mentoring in the region in 2023, including the provision of train-the-trainer programmes to ensure the sustainability of these efforts at the national level.

Further information

The UNODC Global Maritime Crime Programme assists Member States to enhance and coordinate their efforts against maritime crime. To learn more, click here.  


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