Voyages that begin in desperation and end in despair: An estimated 6,000 people a year risk their lives to seek a free passage to the West. Edward Pilkington investigates an increasing and worrying problem

'IT WASN'T a pretty sight,' the captain said with a grimace. 'They found two West Africans in the hold. They'd been 12 days at sea, with food and water to last them less than three.'

Fortunately for Captain Francoise Le Marhollec, of the container ship Yolande Delmas, the West Africans were not discovered on his ship, which docked at Felixstowe last week. Their corpses were unloaded from a sister vessel at Rotterdam two weeks ago. The men had hidden inside a container stored below deck, where cargo is packed so tightly no one can get in, or out.

Stowaways have traditionally enjoyed a popular image as romantic rebels in search of adventure. But the modern reality is anything but romantic. The two West Africans were among an estimated 6,000 stowaways a year who risk their lives to seek a free passage to the West. Most come from Africa and the Far East, fleeing from penury or political persecution. This year there has also been a surge of Romanians and other East Europeans aiming for Canada or the United States.

The latest stowaway to reach British waters arrived at Felixstowe on Thursday on board the Merzario Britannia. He got aboard in Nigeria and arrived with a British birth certificate, but immigration officials refused him entry after learning that another man holding a similar birth certificate already lives here.

Masters of ships like the Yolande Delmas face a Herculean task in keeping their vessels free of stowaways. Most intruders are found before the ship sails. But since he began skippering on the West African route seven years ago, Captain Le Marhollec has dealt on average with one successful group of stowaways a year. One year there were nine.

'How can I hope to keep them away?' he asked. 'Just look at my ship.' A typical container vessel, the Yolande Delmas is of gargantuan proportions. The length of two football pitches, as high as a 10-storey tower block, it can carry 23,000 tons in 1,600 containers. All of that has to be inspected by just 21 crew members. They examine all empty containers above deck before the ship leaves port. But containers in the hold are beyond reach. 'If anybody is down there we would not hear them scream,' Captain Le Marhollec said. 'They'd be finished.'

On board the Yolande Delmas, people have been found perched on top of the mast, squeezed into 1ft gaps between containers, huddled beneath the floor plates in the engine-room and even submerged in the ship's bilge, breathing through plastic tubes.

Those who escape detection and survive, as most do, emerge when the ship is two or three days out to sea, making it uneconomical for it to turn back. But that is just the start of the stowaway saga. For the crew, the uninvited guests pose a security threat, and are treated with caution. Captain Le Marhollec insisted that stowaways were treated properly, if firmly, on his ship. Other masters are less scrupulous. In July, an Algerian was picked up in the Channel 10 miles from Dover, claiming he had been thrown overboard with his hands tied together by the crew of an oil tanker. The man has been granted temporary admission to Britain while he seeks refugee status.

In an earlier case, three Greek captains gave evidence that the killing of stowaways was 'common and universal'. They were speaking at the trial of the master of a Greek cargo ship, the Garifalia, who received a 10-year jail sentence for having dumped 11 Kenyan stowaways in the shark-infested Indian Ocean.

Some captains use stowaways as an extra pair of hands on deck, but Captain Le Marhollec fears insurance problems in the case of injury. He keeps them confined for up to 21 hours a day in spare cabins equipped with iron doors and reinforced portholes.

How long the stowaways remain on board depends on the reaction of immigration officials at British and other European ports. Increasingly, as governments strengthen their borders against immigrants and asylum-seekers, stowaways are being refused entry at successive ports.

In many cases, masters have no option but to keep them on board until they are returned to their original boarding port, a round trip that in the case of the Yolande Delmas takes over six weeks.

'That causes a lot of resentment among the crew,' Captain Le Marhollec said. 'It's hard enough finding anybody prepared to deliver their food, as that's an extra chore after a hard day's work. And if they feel the stowaways could be dangerous they can get very upset.'

The crew of a sister ship recently went on strike in protest against having to carry nine Moroccans whom the master had earlier attempted unsuccessfully to land at Tilbury.

Stowaways who refuse to reveal their identity can remain on board for months, even years, as shipowners try to determine their nationality as the first step towards repatriation. Steve Harvey of Thomas Miller, which manages insurance claims on behalf of shipowners, recalls a man who spent seven years travelling around the world until promised a goat farm in his native Libya.

The best a stowaway to Britain can hope for is to be granted temporary leave to remain. But this is increasingly rare and, even when it happens, prospects of finding employment are slim. Others may succeed in escaping on to land, but then face an underworld existence on the run from police.

Most stowaways find themselves back where they began. Those who fear recriminations there can resort to desperate measures. One on board the Yolande Delmas wrecked his cabin. Another cut his wrists, and a third ate glass from a lightbulb, in the hope of being taken to hospital on shore.

'It's a terrible thing to have to witness,' Captain Le Marhollec said. 'At the first European port of call they are full of hope. But as port after port rejects them their spirits fade. When they realise they are heading back for home they despair.'

(Photograph omitted)