With the EU leaders putting forth a new plan to address Europe’s migrant crisis, leaders from the shipping industry are calling for provisions that guarantee that ships which undertake humanitarian efforts can quickly and safely disembark the people they are rescuing. The shipping industry says that its ships are fulfilling their moral and legal requirements to save the migrants but then are being put in jeopardy due to the lack of agreements on how to promptly disembark the people.
The challenges faced by merchant ships in the migrant crisis came to the forefront recently when a tanker, the Maersk Etienne was called on to go to the rescue of 27 migrants in distress in the waters south of Malta. Responding to calls from a human rights group the tanker saved the migrants including women and children. The vessel was then caught in limbo for nearly six weeks with no port willing to let the ship land the people.
Citing the situation that has just been resolved with the Maersk tanker and other incidents the leaders of the European Community Shipowners’ Associations, European Transport Workers’ Federation, International Chamber of Shipping, and International Transport Workers’ Federation signed an open letter to the president, vice president and commissioners of the European Commission calling for action to ensure a similar situation did not happen again.
Reporting that since the height of the migrant crisis in 2014, merchant ships have helped rescue over 80,000 distressed persons in the waters of the Central Mediterranean, the industry is calling for action from the EC. While acknowledging that there had been a decline in the number of migrants, they cited new data from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex, that reports an 85 percent increase in the number of migrant transits this year over last year.
“This is deeply alarming to the shipping industry, as the migrant routes pass through international shipping lanes, increasing the likelihood of merchant ships being called on to conduct rescues. As recent incidents such as the Talia and Maersk Etienne demonstrate, there is no guarantee that those ships will receive prompt and adequate assistance when fulfilling their humanitarian responsibilities,” the letter says.
They go on to cite the obligations that ships face in these situations noting that once they take the migrants on board the ships act based on instructions received from the Search and Rescue (SAR) Authority coordinating the SAR operation.
“Merchant ships will not shrink from their legal and moral responsibility to render assistance to those in need of assistance at sea,” they say while pointing out that vessels such as the Maersk Etienne are not designed or equipped to take these numbers of people aboard. In addition to the safety issues of boarding the people, they point out that the ships do not have provisions for first aid, medical care, and food and water for large groups of distressed persons.
“It is therefore essential that the rescued persons can be disembarked at the earliest opportunity in a place of safety – as the law demands.” They call for clear rules without attempts to criminalize or complicate the situation further. “States must ensure that the vessels and the masters of those vessels carrying persons in distress whom they have rescued at sea are relieved as soon as reasonably possible in accordance with international law.”
The letter concludes by saying that the ECSA, ICS, ETF, and ITF call on the EU and Member States to facilitate such an outcome without any further delays, taking full account of the need to ensure the safety and security of merchant ships, seafarers, and the distressed people they help.
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