Seven stowaways and a hijacked oil tanker: the strange case of the Nave Andromeda |

Shortly after 9am on 25 October 2020, the captain of the Nave Andromeda sent out a distress call. The crude oil tanker was situated six miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight, close enough to be visible from the pebble beaches that edge the island. In Greek-accented English, the captain, Antonis Perros, said that seven stowaways who had boarded the ship in Nigeria had escaped from the cabin where they were locked: “I try to keep them calm but I need immediately, immediately agency assistance.” For their safety, he said, most of the 22 members of the crew were now locked into a secure area of the ship known as the citadel.

The local police force on the mainland, Hampshire constabulary, began coordinating a response. Policing the seas is complex, and they were in communication with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the UK Border Force. A three-mile exclusion zone was established around the ship.

At about lunchtime the story broke in the media. Isle of Wight Radio reported “an attempted hijacking”, and soon afterwards Hampshire police confirmed that there was an “ongoing incident”. By 3.45pm, coastguard helicopters were circling the Nave Andromeda. The vessel was moving aimlessly, raising fears on shore that the captain had lost control.

Hampshire police told journalists that the stowaways had made “verbal threats” to the crew. Apart from that, not much was known. Within government, there was anxiety. “There’s all sorts of directions this could have gone in: the ship’s crew assassinated, the ship damaged in some way and hitting the coastline, or itself being used as some form of weapon to drive in and hit a port,” Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP and chair of the Commons defence select committee, told me 18 months after the incident. “We’re talking about minute-by-minute decision-making.”

The police requested military assistance, and later that afternoon, home secretary Priti Patel and defence minister Ben Wallace gave the go-ahead for an operation by the navy’s Special Boat Service (SBS). At around 7.30pm, the operation began: 16 elite troops from the SBS stormed the tanker by sea and air, backed by airborne snipers. Commandos fast-roped on to the deck from Wildcat helicopters and scaled the ship’s hull from high-powered inflatable boats. The operation – which took more than 10 hours to coordinate – was over within nine minutes. Before 8pm, the ship was secured, the stowaways handcuffed and awaiting arrest. Soon afterwards, the Nave Andromeda was brought into dock at Southampton. The seven stowaways were arrested on suspicion of “seizing or exercising control of a ship by use of threats or force”. They were led off the Nave Andromeda in handcuffs, past a sign announcing: “Welcome to the port of Southampton, gateway to the world.”

The government ministers involved in the operation were keen to highlight its speed and success. “In dark skies, and worsening weather, we should all be grateful for our brave personnel. People are safe tonight thanks to their efforts,” said Wallace in a statement released 40 minutes after the ship was secured. Patel thanked police and armed forces for their “quick and decisive action”.

Although it was still not clear exactly what had happened on the ship – that evening, lawyers for the company that owned the Nave Andromeda said it was “not a hijacking” – Wallace told journalists the next day that there was “a clear threat to life on the ship”. The Daily Mail reported that “stowaways smashed glass on board and made threats to kill”. Former Royal Navy Rear Admiral Chris Parry told Good Morning Britain: “Next time they could be terrorists.”

The story of a heroic mission to defeat a hijacking in the Channel seemed to arrive at just the right time. In the summer of 2020, the number of migrants crossing the Channel had rapidly increased; in July and August more than 2,000 migrants had attempted the crossing, compared with 500 in the same period in 2019. Politicians and the media had seized on these crossings as evidence of Britain’s failure to protect its borders. On one occasion, the BBC deployed a journalist to stand at the cliffs and literally count the approaching boats. Just weeks before the Nave Andromeda incident, Patel had pledged to crack down on small boat crossings. According to documents later leaked to the press, proposed solutions had included building floating walls across the Channel – one of the world’s busiest shipping routes – and using water cannon to create waves that would push boats away from British shores.

By January, all charges against the stowaways on the Nave Andromeda had been dropped, after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said that new evidence “cast doubt on whether the ship or the crew were in fact put in danger”. The story faded from public view, and the seven stowaways were left to make their way through Britain’s asylum system. But what really happened on board? While the tale of marauding Nigerian pirates took hold, accounts from the ship’s crew and the stowaways themselves suggest a very different chain of events.

Michael did not intend to stow away. Before 6 October 2020, the day he found himself climbing off a fishing boat 10 miles from the Nigerian coast and into the rudder of the Nave Andromeda, he had never even been on water.

A softly spoken man, now aged 26, Michael has a serious face with high cheekbones. On one cheek he has a prominent scar, inflicted during a violent initiation into the gang he joined as a teenager in his home city of Lagos. Soon after, in 2015, Michael was ordered to commit a robbery. When he refused, senior gang members threatened to kill him. Realising he couldn’t leave the gang without deadly reprisal, he ran away from home. He spent the next five years living on the streets, picking up odd jobs where he could. In the summer of 2020, Michael heard that gang members had shot and killed his mother. At that point, he felt he had no option but to flee the country.

An elderly man who had recently offered Michael work hauling fish said he could help him sneak on to a tanker at Lagos’s main port, a bustling complex in the south of the city. Michael did not know which ship he would get on or where it might be heading, only that it would take him away.

The port complex in Lagos, Nigeria.
The port complex in Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph: Temilade Adelaja/Reuters

A few days later, Michael sat with the elderly man on the small fishing boat that would take him to the Nave Andromeda, which was anchored near the port, ready to set off to Russia. “The sea was so rough,” Michael recalled. He leaned over the side and vomited. As they approached the oil tanker, Michael was puzzled by the sight of it. The Nave Andromeda is 228 metres long, and he had never seen such a big ship. “I was thinking, what kind of boat is this? Is it a house?”

When they reached the ship, Michael’s friend helped him climb on to the rudder. The rudder is a massive steel plate attached to the outside of the vessel. A large pole links it to a steering room inside the ship, and around the pole is a recess called the rudder stock, a space less than two metres wide. Michael clambered into this space. Right above the massive propeller fan and exposed to the wind and waves, the rudder stock is not designed for human occupation, and it is sealed off from the rest of the vessel. This was where Michael was stuck. And he was not alone.

That day, six other men arrived separately on small boats. They all crammed into the rudder stock, clinging on to the central pole. Some of them secured themselves with ropes as best they could. One of them, a tall man with a narrow face and his hair in neat twists, was called John. Like Michael, John was escaping from a gang. An acquaintance had offered to help John on to a ship, saying that once he made it overseas, John could send back money to pay for his transit. John agreed, and three days later found himself climbing on to the rudder of the Nave Andromeda. “It was either I survive, or I die,” he told me when we spoke on the phone 10 months later.

The discovery of a stowaway is highly stressful for a ship’s crew. International waters are poorly governed, and it is usually unclear which country’s jurisdiction the stowaways are under. The ship’s voyage is often seriously disrupted as the crew and the shipping company must negotiate with port authorities, governments and police forces to try to find a port that will accept them.

Stowaways are also a financial problem. Most port authorities will detain stowaways and deport them, at the expense of the ship’s owner. Shipping companies usually have insurance to cover this cost, but, as Edward Carlson, a US-based maritime lawyer who has worked on numerous stowaway cases, told me: “It’s a big expense, and it’s a headache.” Once on shore, if they claim asylum, stowaways become the legal and financial responsibility of the state; but if their claim is later refused, the shipping company may be asked to pay for repatriation at that stage.

Any commercial voyage involves multiple parties – typically, private companies charter vessels from ship owners. Delays or diversions to the voyage cost money, as do security arrangements, flights and fines that governments impose for breaches of immigration law. “The vessel is constantly accumulating costs, and who is responsible for those costs is a source of endless debate and hours of legal work,” said Carlson. In recent years, stowaway searches have become routine. The ports in Lagos are chaotic, a fact exploited by established networks of people smugglers who push stowaways into ever-more dangerous hiding places: below the engine room, in the cargo hold, or the perilous area that hides the anchor chains.

It was noisy in the rudder stock, between the roaring of the waves and the metallic thrum of the propeller fan. Salt water lashed at the stowaways’ skin, and as the Nave Andromeda pulled out of the port, the men lurched from side to side. They agreed to share their scant supplies of food – biscuits, powdered cassava – and bottled water. They speculated that they might be there for one or two days. Night fell. Morning came. Michael tried not to think about falling in. But with nothing visible apart from the deep blue of open water, it was difficult to think of anything else. Proper sleep was impossible. “If you fell asleep you would fall into the water and that would be the end of your life,” John told me. “It’s just open sea, so no matter how you swim you can’t survive it.”

Night fell again. The ropes caused cuts and welts on the men’s skin, and their muscles ached from clinging on. Their surging adrenaline meant they didn’t feel much hunger, but thirst began to set in as sea water drenched them from all sides.

Nine days passed. On 15 October, Michael saw land. Gradually, buildings came into view. The Nave Andromeda had reached Las Palmas port, on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, where it was scheduled to stop to restock on food and fuel. The stowaways saw a small tugboat sailing out from the port. This was their chance. They clambered out of the small recess where they were hiding and on to the top edge of the rudder. They shouted and waved, summoning the last of their strength to bang on the sides of the ship, desperate to be noticed and taken to land. Someone on the tugboat spotted them, and radioed the captain of the Nave Andromeda, who spoke to the port authority. The vessel came to a stop.

Soon afterwards, two rescue boats sped from the port to the rudder of the Nave Andromeda. The stowaways climbed off the rudder and on to the two small boats. “I did not know what was going to happen,” said Michael. “I was so scared.” But the rescue boats did not sail into port, as the men had hoped. Instead, they pulled up beside a ladder that led up to the deck of the Nave Andromeda. The stowaways were ordered to climb up the ladder and the rescue boats went back to port. The seven men were now the responsibility of the ship’s captain.

In theory, the men should have been allowed to get off the ship in Gran Canaria: maritime convention states that, if possible, stowaways should be disembarked at the vessel’s next port of call. But this was not what happened. Instead, as soon as they heard that there were stowaways on board, the port authorities denied permission for the Nave Andromeda to dock, and it remained anchored offshore. If a vessel doesn’t dock, it does not formally enter the country. Had the Nave Andromeda docked at Las Palmas, the authorities would have been obligated to allow the stowaways off, leaving them free to apply for asylum in Spain.

The decision by the port authorities in Gran Canaria should have come as no surprise: less than a fortnight earlier, on 6 October, an almost identical incident had taken place at the same port. The Champion Pula, another oil tanker, had left Lagos 10 days earlier. On reaching Las Palmas, four stowaways were discovered in the compartment above the rudder. The Spanish authorities would not keep them. That incident ended relatively quickly: the Champion Pula’s next scheduled port was Herøya in Norway where the men were allowed to disembark and claim asylum. But if multiple ports refuse to allow a ship carrying stowaways to dock, the vessel can effectively become trapped at sea.

Stowaways sitting on the rudder of the Champion Pula near the Canary Islands, October 2020
Stowaways sitting on the rudder of the Champion Pula near the Canary Islands, October 2020. Photograph: Salvamento Marítimo

“There are very few jurisdictions that accept stowaways with open arms,” one shipping insurance executive told me, adding that this is a particular problem in Europe and the US, owing to increased hostility towards migration. This is despite the fact that the numbers involved are relatively small: in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 90 recorded stowaway events on ships worldwide involving around 230 people. (The real number is likely to be higher, since this only includes cases in which an insurance claim was made. Nevertheless, stowaways on ships still represent a tiny proportion of migrants.)

Once it was clear that Spain would not allow the stowaways to disembark, Michael, John and the other five sat on the deck of the Nave Andromeda as the crew tried to work out where the men could sleep. Albert, a Filipino man in his late 40s, was a low-ranking member of the crew. He is a man of strong opinions who has learned to keep his views to himself during two decades of working in the strictly hierarchical world of shipping. The first thing he noticed was the smell – the stowaways reeked of sweat and seawater after their ordeal in the rudder stock – and the cuts on their skin. “It broke my heart, to be honest,” he told me. The seven stowaways were all devout Christians, and some murmured thanks to God and prayed as they sat on the deck. This struck a chord with Albert, who was also Christian. He saw other common ground, too: “If you’re poor, if you don’t have food, you might try to go to another place. That’s why I go to the ship to work, because I’d be poor if I stayed in the Philippines. It’s the same with them.”

The crew brought the stowaways food, water and clean clothes, and dressed their wounds. Afterwards, the men were taken to a cabin containing six bunks, with a seventh foam mattress on the floor, and an adjoining bathroom. The door closed behind them and the lock clicked shut.

Later in the day, Perros, the captain, came to the cabin. The stowaways told him that they wanted to get on to land, and didn’t care which country they went to. Perros (who declined to be interviewed for this story but referred us to his employers, Navios) explained this wouldn’t be possible in Gran Canaria, but that he would try to make an unscheduled stop in France and let them out there. The next day, 16 October, the Nave Andromeda set sail.

Over the next five days, the stowaways settled into a strange sort of routine, mostly confined to their cabin. Someone from the crew brought food and water three times a day, and once a day they were escorted to the deck for fresh air. Most days Perros, or the superintendent Giannis Zafeirakis, came to their cabin to update them and check in. (Zafeirakis also declined to comment.) “They were so nice,” Michael remembered. “The captain was telling us stories. He gave us a TV so we could watch movies. He gave us everything we wanted.” Michael cried a lot, thinking of his mother’s death, and remembers the captain taking special care to ask if he was OK, even bringing him cigarettes.

The Nave Andromeda is owned by the Greek company Navios Tankers Management. (Navios did not respond to a request for comment.) The ship’s captain and six other senior officers were Greek, while the rest of the 22-strong crew was almost entirely Filipino. There wasn’t much communication between the two groups, although they spoke English to each other. The crew was not allowed to spend time with the stowaways, and for the most part, only Perros and Zafeirakis talked to them. The handful of other crew members, including Albert, who briefly interacted with the stowaways, found them to be pleasant and polite. “They were very nice guys, with very big hearts,” said Albert.

On their long days inside the cabin, the Nigerian men talked in a way they hadn’t been able to as they hung on for their lives inside the deafening rudder chamber. They shared details of how they had ended up leaving Nigeria. But more often, they talked anxiously about getting off the ship. “Most of us felt sick and we were getting depressed being locked up,” John said. Michael was grieving – and his fear of the water had been exacerbated by the traumatic journey. “When I was in the big sea, I couldn’t see the land,” he said. “Let me see the land, I was thinking, where I can stretch my legs and know I am free.”

On 20 October, the Nave Andromeda reached Saint Nazaire in France. When the captain informed the port that there were stowaways on board, permission to dock was denied.(Although Albert wasn’t party to the negotiations, he said he was told that the port authorities cited Covid restrictions and the fact that the stowaways didn’t have identifying documents.) When Perros and Zafeirakis came to inform the men, Michael said they looked visibly stressed. “The captain and the superintendent were telling us to stay calm and that they were looking for somewhere safe to drop us,” said John. “They also said that they needed us to be off the ship because they were running out of food.”

Crew on vessels that have been refused permission to dock have occasionally taken extreme action. In his book The Outlaw Ocean, the journalist Ian Urbina describes the practice of rafting, “whereby a crew, discovering such uninvited guests, sets them adrift in the middle of the ocean and leaves them to die.” There have also been instances of stowaways, desperate to disembark, turning violent. In 2018, a group of Nigerian stowaways threatened the crew as the ship approached Tilbury docks in the Thames Estuary. They were later convicted of affray and making threats to kill.

On the Nave Andromeda, everyone was tense. The senior officers were in an awkward position. Their commercial voyage had been disrupted and the ship’s supplies were diminishing. Meanwhile, the stowaways were growing increasingly frustrated.

Even so, relations stayed cordial. “There was no aggression,” said Albert. I spoke to another crew member who corroborated Albert’s version of events, but did not want to be quoted. Perros took John and another man up to the bridge, the navigational centre of the vessel, and showed them a map. He pointed to where they were anchored, and said that he would try to get them off in Holland or the UK. The stowaways returned to the cabin and waited.

After the refusal in France, the Nave Andromeda drifted for a few days while the senior officers and Navios, the shipping company, tried to work out what to do. Concerns about the financial implications filtered down to Albert and the rest of the crew. The stowaways’ meals were reduced from three a day to two.

On 24 October, Albert saw the six Greek officers gather on the ship’s bridge for a meeting, with Navios’ head office in Athens dialled in. (Another crew member confirmed that this meeting took place.) Later that evening, according to Michael and John, Perros came to the cabin and said that at 10am the next day they would be dropped in Southampton, England. The ship’s chef was told to prepare breakfast early because the crew would be doing a drill.

The next morning, the crew ate breakfast together at around 7am. Straight afterwards, they were told to go to the citadel – the secure area where, in the event of an attack, the crew can shelter and wait for backup. Albert and another crew member told me that they were in the citadel by 8am. Shortly after this, at around 9am, the distress call went out to the British coastguard: “I need immediately, immediately agency assistance.”

Inside their cabin, the stowaways were watching the clock on the wall. They had no idea that anyone had called for help, but they knew something was amiss. Usually someone brought breakfast before 7am, but today no one had come with food or water. Even inside their locked cabin, they could usually hear clanking machinery and the footfall and shouting of crew going about their daily work. That day, everything was silent.

The Nave Andromeda arriving at Southampton port, 26 October 2020
The Nave Andromeda being towed into Southampton, 26 October 2020. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

The men could tell that the ship was drifting, and they started to get scared. John wondered if they’d been abandoned at sea, and panicked about how they would ever steer the vessel. Michael worried that the ship was turning back to Nigeria. At lunchtime, they waited for a knock but no one came. Hungry, thirsty and confused, the men banged on the door. There was no response. Soon after, at around 2pm, they decided they needed to find out what was going on. They broke the door of the cabin. The corridor outside was abandoned. “We didn’t see nobody. We didn’t hear anything, even a rat,” said Michael.

Increasingly panicked, the seven men moved through the ship, shouting out to attract attention from the crew. There was no one to be seen. “Why would these people decide to lock themselves in their rooms for no reason? That’s how I knew something was wrong,” said John. They came to the deck. From here, they could see the bridge, where Perros was standing. Some of the men approached the bridge, hoping to talk to Perros. He held up a handwritten note against the glass, telling them to stay calm and that the authorities were coming.

Not sure what to think, the men sat on the deck and waited. “We can see the captain in the glass. He is radioing, I don’t know who he is talking to,” said Michael. “That’s when we see helicopters coming.”

At 3.45pm, the coastguard’s helicopters circled above the Nave Andromeda. Some of the men had the idea of waving white handkerchiefs to show that they were peaceful. The helicopters continued to circle, but nothing else happened. As afternoon turned to evening, it got cold out on deck. Some of the stowaways went back into their cabin to wait there.

At around 7.30pm, the wait ended. The Special Boat Service operation began: armed commandos scaled the sides of the ship. Michael was on deck when they arrived. His heart beat fast as he saw a gun trained on him. “It was like a movie,” he remembered. “I was so scared. I have not seen that kind of gun in my life before.” He wasn’t even sure what country he was in.

John was in the cabin when the commandos arrived. “I knew that we were in big trouble because there were so many forces for just seven of us,” he said. As he saw their weapons, he was convinced he was going to die. “I had nothing to defend myself, and even if I did, what could I do against so many guys who looked like they should be going to a war front?”

The stowaways did not resist: in the space of the nine-minute military operation, they were all handcuffed and made to lie flat on the deck. Michael had never left Africa before, and the British sea air chilled him to his bones. After several hours, the ship docked in Southampton. Almost three weeks after they had climbed on to the rudder in Lagos, the seven men were led off the Nave Andromeda in handcuffs and taken to Southampton Central police station, a red-brick building across the road from the port. On board the ship, they had felt like they were in prison. But their confinement was just beginning.

Navios later said in a statement that Perros sent out the distress call because he “was concerned for the safety of the crew due to the increasingly hostile behaviour of the stowaways”. This is certainly possible. But according to the accounts of some crew members and stowaways, it seems that the distress call was made several hours before the stowaways broke out of their cabin – the event cited as the trigger for the call – and that the crew were locked in the citadel long before this happened.

Whatever the reasoning behind the distress call, as soon as it was made, the incident took on a life of its own. The British press, and British politicians, quickly described it as a hijacking. But hijacking is a specific crime: the term refers to the seizure of a commercial vehicle by force or the threat of force. It is not a term that Perros used in his distress call. Nor is there any evidence that he or anyone else from Navios suggested that there was a risk of the crew losing control of the ship, or indeed any attempt by the stowaways to seize it. In fact, that very evening, Navios’s lawyers reportedly told the BBC that the incident was “100% not a hijacking”.

British ministers could have used more neutral language – they might, for instance, have referred to events as a “security incident” – but they chose not to. The next day, Wallace told journalists that the stowaways were “threatening to do something with the ship” that would have caused a “threat to the environment and, more importantly, to the lives of people on the ship … something the state can’t tolerate”. It is not clear what these statements were based on, but it added to the impression that something extremely violent had taken place. “We had government ministers practically saying that the allegations are true before any investigation or trial,” said James Wilson, deputy director of Detention Action, a charity that supported John and one other stowaway while they were in immigration detention. “It just looks like a massive overreaction.”

A news crew reporting on the Nave Andromeda incident in Southampton, 26 October 2020
A news crew reporting on the Nave Andromeda incident in Southampton, 26 October 2020. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

John, Michael and the other men spent three nights at Southampton police station, before being released on bail and transferred to Colnbrook immigration removal centre, a drab building close to Heathrow airport. They were confused about what had happened on board, and all denied the allegations of violence. John panicked that he would be sent back to Lagos and murdered by the man who had put him on the boat; he still owed money for his passage. Michael relied on his religious faith, telling himself that God would not allow him to be punished for a crime he did not commit. “I know I am not a hijacker,” he said to himself.

The vessel sat at Southampton port for a few days. No one was allowed on or off the ship because police were treating it as a crime scene. Police questioned the captain and crew. Albert said their questions focused narrowly on whether he had been injured or had his property stolen. “They didn’t ask what really happened,” he told me. He wanted to tell someone what he told me eight months later: “It’s not a hijack, it was just a drama. It’s a story only. A big fucking lie.” (He no longer works for Navios.)

After a few days in Southampton, the Nave Andromeda sailed on to Antwerp and then continued on its planned voyage to Russia. The senior officers never discussed the events with the Filipino crew. In Albert’s view, the decision to withhold food and water from the stowaways – which led directly to them breaking down the door of their cabin – was a deliberate provocation. Of course, there is a reasonable explanation: the rations may have been reduced due to food shortages, and it is not unusual to lock stowaways into a cabin when approaching a port so that they don’t try to escape and swim to shore. But this does not explain the distress call. For all the puzzling inconsistencies, one of the Greek officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the incident as “piracy” and told me that “everything written about it was true”.

Just before Christmas, two of the stowaways were charged with conduct endangering ships under the Merchant Shipping Act. They were taken to prison. The other five men remained in detention, waiting to hear if they would be charged, too. A few weeks later, the CPS dropped charges against all the men on the grounds that there was no realistic chance of conviction. Explaining this decision, the CPS said that “while initial reports had indicated there was a risk of destruction or serious damage to the ship”, video footage and further analysis had “cast doubt” on whether ship and crew had been in danger.

The Home Office publicly criticised the CPS decision, saying: “It is frustrating that there will be no prosecution in relation to this very serious incident and the British people will struggle to understand how this can be the case.” This was a highly unusual step. “It’s genuinely extraordinary for the Home Office as an institution to criticise the independent Crown Prosecution Service,” said Colin Yeo, an immigration lawyer. “I think it’s unprecedented.”

I spoke with John and Michael separately after the charges against them had been dropped. John was still in Colnbrook detention centre when he heard the news. “I was so happy,” he remembered. “They did good research and justice prevailed.”

But the stowaways’ ordeal was not over. Seeking asylum in the UK is a complicated and slow process: the Refugee Council estimates that it takes most people between one and three years. Over the next few months, the stowaways were released from immigration detention one by one, and given temporary accommodation around England.

John was sent first to a small town in the north-west, then to Manchester, where he is currently staying. He read news reports about the incident on the Nave Andromeda online. “I didn’t know why the Home Office was pressuring [the CPS] to send us to prison,” he said. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work or go to college, and so he spends a lot of time alone in his room. He misses his six fellow stowaways; they formed a close friendship on the ship, which developed while they were locked up in the same detention centre. They keep in touch, chatting on Facebook or on the phone, but they’re scattered around the country now, and it isn’t the same.

I met John in a park in Manchester on a cold, bright day in March. He wore a black bomber jacket and a camouflage headband that pulled the hair back from his face, highlighting a small scar on his forehead. “When someone lays a [false] allegation on you, of course you’re going to get angry, but you have to control yourself,” he said. “The most important thing is for people to find out that it’s true you’re innocent.” He spoke in a flat voice about his experience on the Nave Andromeda, lightening up only when conversation turned to a recent Champions League match; football provides a welcome escape from the daily monotony of sitting in a hostel room, with barely enough money to buy food.

Michael was released from detention a couple of months before John, and spent some time in hotels in London before being moved to Coventry. The conditions in one hotel were so poor – a filthy room with a strong smell of faeces – that he went to the local police station and asked to be arrested so that he could sleep in a cell. He finds it difficult to manage his mental health and often sleeps all day.

While John anxiously read the media coverage of the Nave Andromeda incident, Michael did not, and had not fully understood the status of the criminal case. We met over a year after the CPS had dropped all charges, but he handed me a crumpled bail notice from the police and asked me to explain it. When I said that the case had been dropped, pulling up a BBC report from the previous January on my phone, he began to cry. “I didn’t know that,” he said.

Michael goes to his local church every Sunday, and occasionally plays football with members of the congregation, but otherwise he keeps to himself: he is afraid that the gang who killed his mother will track him down in the UK, which leaves him reluctant to make new friends.

It has been weeks since either of them had any update on their asylum claims; they have no timeline for when a decision might be reached. Although such delays are not uncommon, it is difficult not to worry that the allegations are playing a part. “They say: ‘You are sea pirates, hijackers’,” said Michael. “But we are not sea pirates. We came only for survival.”

After the high drama of a triumphant military operation to keep Britain’s shores safe, this is what remains: seven men, alone in bedsits, waiting.

Some names have been changed

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