Shipping Groups Call for Cooperation on Migrant Rescues at Sea

Migrants are seen in a rubber dinghy as they are rescued by the crew of the Mission Lifeline rescue boat in the central Mediterranean Sea, June 21, 2018. Picture taken June 21, 2018. Hermine Poschmann/Misson-Lifeline/Handout via REUTERS

International shipping groups are calling for greater cooperation on a policy for migrants rescued at sea following Italy’s move to refuse ships carrying migrants from entering its ports.

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) on Monday issued a press release saying the shipping industry is growing increasingly concerned about the new policy of the Italian Government to close its ports to migrants rescued by ships at sea.

The press release comes after a Maersk container ship, the Alexander Maersk, diverted its course at the request from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome to pick up 113 migrants in need of rescue in international waters off southern Italy last Friday.

The vessel is receiving timely support from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, who Saturday evening disembarked five persons from the vessel, mainly children and one pregnant woman, and delivered supplies to the vessel such as blankets and food,” Maersk said in a statement provided to gCaptain.

As of Monday, the Alexander Maersk was at anchor off Sicily awaiting instructions from government authorities about where to disembark the migrants. 

“If correct, this refusal by Italy to allow prompt and predicable disembarkation from merchant ships, which are complying with their obligations under maritime law, could have serious humanitarian consequences for the safety and welfare of hundreds if not thousands of distressed people” said ICS Secretary General, Peter Hinchliffe. “If the policy is extended this would also have significant implications for the movement of trade throughout the Mediterranean. But the industry’s immediate concern is humanitarian and for the welfare and dignity of those people that have been rescued and their need to receive proper medical assistance ashore.”

Ships traveling in international waters are obligated to assist persons in distress under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention. SOLAS further obligates governments to “ensure that masters of ships providing assistance by embarking persons in distress at sea are released from their obligations with minimum further deviation from the ships’ intended voyage.”

Maersk Containership Picks Up 113 Migrants Off Italy

On two occasions this month, Italy has refused humanitarian NGO ships carrying hundreds of migrants each to dock at its ports.

The ICS is now calling on all EU heads of government ahead of a summit later this week to the concerns raised by Italy to come up with policy that will ensure the “prompt and predictable disembarkation” of migrants.

The ICS statement also warned that following the election of the new Italian Government, the crisis now seems to be taking an ever more political direction.

“At their summit later this week, it is of the utmost importance that EU leaders get to grips with this serious new problem of EU States refusing to disembark rescued persons that have been correctly rescued by merchant ships as required by international law,” added Hinchliffe.

The World Shipping Council echoed these calls with its own statement reminding that the rescue persons at sea is a shared responsibility.

“Operators of commercial vessels are regularly called upon to assist persons at sea, and they respond willingly to their legal and humanitarian responsibilities,” said John Butler, President and CEO of the World Shipping Council. “However, commercial cargo vessels are not designed to carry large numbers of people, and that is why SOLAS also obligates governments to promptly provide a place of safety for the rescued persons.”

“The migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is a reminder that all parties operating under SOLAS have a shared responsibility to bring persons stranded at sea to a place of safety on land as quickly as possible,” the World Shipping Council added.