Piracy off the coast of Somalia - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

5  FCO support for victims and families

142.  The FCO is the department responsible for the Government's reaction when UK citizens are taken hostage overseas, including hostages held by Somali pirates. The Minister told us that the FCO's travel advice is "clear", and that "we are unable to provide consular assistance in Somalia". He further stated that for British citizens taken hostage in Somalia, as elsewhere, "in accordance with HMG's long standing policy we would not facilitate or negotiate the payment of a ransom. Consular staff would remain in contact with families of the hostages while they remained kidnapped".[259]

143.  The FCO provides warnings in its travel advice about piracy attack in the region. At present, FCO advice states:

Sailing vessels are particularly vulnerable to attack due to their low speed and low freeboard. We advise against all but essential travel by yacht and leisure craft on the high seas in the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and part of the Indian Ocean, as bounded by the latitude and longitude coordinates above [15°N in the Red Sea, 23°N in the Arabian Sea, 78°E and 15°S in the Indian Ocean].[260]


144.  Paul and Rachel Chandler's yacht, the Lynn Rival, was hijacked in October 2009 while sailing west from the Seychelles toward Tanga, in northern Tanzania. It is one of about 10 hijackings of yachts in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean since 2007.[261] The couple were forced to sail toward Somalia before being transferred to another ship and taken on shore. They were held hostage by the pirate group for just over a year.

145.  The FCO led the Government's response to the Chandlers' abduction, and both the FCO and the Ministry of Defence were criticised in the press for their handling of the case. In their appearance before us, Paul and Rachel Chandler made a number of criticisms of the FCO's approach.


146.  At the point when the Chandlers' yacht was hijacked, it was 60 nautical miles off the west coast of the main island in the Seychelles and still within the Seychelles archipelago. This hijacking was much closer to shore than might have been expected. However, the planned journey to Tanzania would have involved passing through the high-risk area. Rachel Chandler stated that they had checked all available travel warnings when they were in the UK six weeks before their trip. The FCO states that its Travel Advice for the Seychelles before the kidnapping contained the following warning:

reports of the hijacking of vessels by Somali pirates in the northern and western fringes of Seychelles exclusive economic zone waters; for example near Assumption Island. These incidents have happened hundreds of miles from Mahé and the main tourist areas. In response, Seychelles has deployed its Coast Guard, is stationing small units of its Defence Force to the outer islands and some remote inner islands, and is receiving assistance from the international community.

The Chandlers stated that they did not recall seeing the FCO advice against travel before they left the Seychelles, and recommended that piracy advice be available in a low bandwidth to allow travellers to access it in areas with poor internet connection, in the same way that they can access weather warnings.[262] We recommend that the Government review the medium in which information on piracy such as travel warnings is released, in order to ensure that it is accessible to different users, including yachtsmen. We further recommend that the Government intensifies its efforts to draw to the attention of seafarers the information that is available on the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) and NATO websites about specific sea areas at risk of pirate attack.

Securing their release

147.  The Chandlers and their family in the UK were involved in lengthy negotiations to secure their release. A ransom of $440,000 was paid, although it did not immediately result in their release. Paul and Rachel Chandler told us that the FCO had no role in securing their release from their captivity, attributing their eventual liberation to work done by their family, pro bono consultants and members of the Somali diaspora community.[263] They further suggested that the FCO was not the correct department to handle their case, and that the police would have been more appropriate.[264]

148.  The FCO responded to this criticism, telling us that it was actively involved in efforts to secure Paul and Rachel Chandler's release. However, when asked if the Government knew of the details of how the Chandlers were freed, the Minister admitted to not knowing the details of their release; and Chris Holtby, Deputy Head of Security Policy Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stated that "in so far as the Chandlers have wanted to share it with consular officials, then they know, but payment of ransom is not a matter for government".[265] The Minister provided further details in a letter to us following his appearance, explaining that in the Chandlers' case:

as with any kidnap case, a dedicated team from across Whitehall met regularly to monitor developments and agree actions. COBR also met on a number of occasions during the kidnap. We did everything we could to secure their release within the terms of our policy on ransom payments, and discussed regularly the options available to HMG for securing Paul and Rachel's safe release as quickly as possible. For example, we used our contacts in the region to gain information and bring influence to bear on the hostage-takers.[266]

However, the letter went on to state that:

The FCO did not make or facilitate the payment of a ransom and we therefore have little information about what finally secured the couple's release.[267]

149.  We acknowledge that the FCO cannot comment publicly on all aspects of its work on the Chandlers' case. However, we are surprised and concerned that the FCO was able to provide us with so little detail on this case, particularly given that during the Chandlers' captivity the FCO were the department responsible. We recommend that the Government review its handling of the Chandlers' case to ascertain whether improvements could be made for the future, and we request that the Government present its conclusions in its response to this report.

Support for the family

150.  The Minister informed us that FCO consular staff remained in frequent touch with Paul and Rachel Chandler's family throughout their ordeal, and the family attended meetings in the FCO to meet operational staff, and to link by Video Telephone Conference with the British High Commission in Nairobi.[268] However, in their written and oral evidence, the Chandlers appeared to criticise strongly the FCO's support for their family, characterising it as merely "tea and sympathy",[269] and stating that:

We were disappointed to learn that the assistance from the FCO was, if anything, negative. The support and advice to our siblings, who were always likely to be on the receiving end of begging phone calls, was distressingly inadequate.[270]

However, the Chandlers praised the FCO's support once they arrived in Kenya and on their travel and arrival in Britain, where they were provided with FCO accommodation for a brief period. We are disappointed that Paul and Rachel Chandler did not feel that their family was adequately supported during their ordeal. We recommend that the FCO review its communication and other procedures to provide support to family members of British hostages abroad, and provide its conclusions to the Committee in response to this report.

259   Ev 68 Back

260   "Piracy in the Indian Ocean", Foreign and Commonwealth Office, see fco.gov.uk  Back

261   "To sail the Gulf of Aden is like playing Russian Roulette", EUNAVOR website, 2 November 2011, eunavfor.eu Back

262   Q 321 Back

263   Q 360 and Ev 77 -78,  Back

264   Q 344, and evidence received in confidence. Back

265   Q 308 and Q 310 Back

266   Ev 71 Back

267   Ev 71 Back

268   Ev 71 Back

269   Q 347 Back

270   Ev 78, para 29 Back

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Prepared 5 January 2012