Shipowners: Merchant Ships Not Capable of Large-Scale Migrant Rescues

Migrants arrives by boat "Nos Taurus Genova" at the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo, February 16, 2015. REUTERS Alessandro Bianchi
Migrants arrives by boat “Nos Taurus Genova” at the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo, February 16, 2015. REUTERS Alessandro Bianchi

Intermanager and the European Community Shipowners’ Association are saying that it is unrealistic for merchant ships to continue to bear the burden of conducting large-scale rescues of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

To address the issue, Intermanager and ECSA are organizing a seminar to combat the escalating humanitarian crisis involving migrants at sea during the upcoming European Shipping Week, during which European Commission officials, MEPs and Member States’ representatives will meet with industry reps and other stakeholders to exchange views and discuss possible ways forward.

In 2014, it is estimated that over 200,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe and over 3,500 lives lost, representing a huge jump from just a year prior. This year, the unregulated and unsafe crossings continue to be an issue, with an estimated 5,600 rescues so far, including more than 2,000 since last weekend alone.

Intermanager and ECSA say that as a result of the increased number of crossing, shipping companies’ vessels have been thrust to center stage by often being the first ones to respond to the rescues and provide assistance to those in distress, as is there duty under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But Intermanager and ESCA are arguing that it goes without saying that search and rescue operations cannot be adequately performed by merchant vessels on a permanent basis, as crews are ill-prepared and untrained to conduct such operations, while cargo ships are scantily equipped to accommodate dozens of additional people on board who are often in need of medical assistance. Moreover there are important security sanitary and hygiene-related concerns to be taken into account when allowing migrants on board.

In a statement announcing the seminar, the organizations drew attention to EU Member States not stepping up their efforts to meet increased need for patrols and search and rescue operations in the region. The statement calls out Italy’s recent decision to end its year-long “Mare Nostrum” humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean, and the continued European Commission’s Operation Triton, launched with the help of the EU’s border protection agency Frontex, which is much more limited in scope as it only focusses on border surveillance within 30 miles of the Italian coast

“Scaling-back efforts is deplorable as it leaves a gap which has de facto been filled by shipping companies,” the organization’s said in the statement. “Search and rescue operations are sovereign functions and entrusting them to the industry is as dangerous as it is irresponsible. The situation has today moved beyond the question of whether or not a large scale rescue operation in the Mediterranean has a “pull factor” for refugees, as latest figures indicate that even during the winter months, following the end of the Mare Nostrum operation, the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean has only increased. EU Member States must act now.”

The Intermanager/ECSA seminar will take place on March 2nd, 2015 in Brussels.