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Rescuing migrants at sea – issues for merchant ships

3 November 2017

A recent meeting hosted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) looked at the role of merchant shipping in the rescue of sea migrants in distress. The problem has grown as the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in unsafe vessels has led to still further deaths at sea.   

The meeting, made up of representatives of UN agencies, the maritime industry (including the ITF) and European Union naval forces, looked at the complexities of this humanitarian challenge. The IMO said that experience could be harrowing, for the rescued and seafarers alike, and that modern merchant vessels were unsuited to carrying large numbers of survivors, with inadequate shelter, medical care or sanitation, and limited spare food and water.

In one case cited at the meeting, the fully-laden oil tanker Okyroe, with a crew of 21, rescued 1,536 people from rubber dinghies in October 2016; 778 were transferred to rescue vessels over a two-day period and 758 were transferred by the vessel to Augusta, Italy.

In the 10 months to the end of October 2017, almost 150,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea, of whom 2,826 lost their lives. The majority arrived in Italy, with Greece, Cyprus and Spain taking the rest. Merchant vessels were involved in about one in 10 rescue operations in the Mediterranean – 101 cases in 2017 to date.

The meeting heard that the current international conventions on the safety of life at sea and search and rescue were never intended to be a response to such mass migration. IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim said that, although governments and merchant shipping will continue rescue operations: “safe, legal, alternative pathways to migration must be developed, including safe, organised migration by sea, if necessary.”  

 



 
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