Shipping Industry Calls for Immediate Increase of SAR Ops in Mediterranean

File photo shows a migrant boat in distress in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: TORM A/S
File photo shows a migrant boat in distress in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: TORM A/S

The European and global shipping industries are calling on EU Member States to immediately launch a proper EU search and rescue operation with sufficient resources to prevent the further loss of thousands of lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

The urgent call to action comes ahead of the emergency EU Council Summit being held on Thursday to address the escalated humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea following the tragic events that have occurred there in recent days and months.

The shipping industry says that the decision taken by EU Foreign Ministers to bolster the FRONTEX-led Triton mission is a step in the right direction, but potentially falls short of the need for an operation with similar resources and geographical scope as the Italian Mare Nostrum operation which was suspended last year.

Following the tragedy this last weekend in which close to 1,000 people lost their lives, the shipping industry, the citizens of Europe, and the wider international community expect the leaders of Europe to act decisively and to maintain the new momentum for something to be done, the European Community Shipowners’ Association (ECSA) and International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) said in a joint statement Wednesday.

Update: EU Expected to Restore Rescue Operation in Mediterranean

In Brussels, Patrick Verhoeven, Secretary General of the ECSA commented, “The shipping industry recognizes that the underlying issues are very complex. But when dealing with the imminent life or death of thousands of people, fast and decisive action is needed to avoid further escalation of the problem.

“Ideally we need an EU operation similar to Mare Nostrum, but the critical thing is that Search and Rescue resources, rather than border control resources, are increased now, and that they are increased immediately – not later in the year or even in a few weeks’ time,” Verhoeven added.

Peter Hinchliffe, Secretary General of the London-based International Chamber of Shipping commented, “When we talk about increased Search and Rescue operations, we mean increasing the number of coastguard and other appropriate vessels that are immediately available to help, and expanding the geographical area of patrols to those areas where migrants are most likely to be found before they get into serious difficulty.

“When called upon to assist, merchant ships will always come to the aid of anyone in distress at sea, but as the tragic events of the weekend seem to have shown, merchant ships are really not best equipped to deal with such large-scale operations involving hundreds of people,” said Hinchliffe.

The ECSA has said previously that it is unrealistic for merchant ships to continue to bear the burden of conducting large-scale rescues of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

In a joint letter to leaders of all 28 EU Members States issued earlier this month, the ECSA, the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) warned that the crisis is spiraling out of control, and that we can expect further catastrophic loss of life unless EU Member States respond with greater urgency by give priority to increasing resources for Search and Rescue operations.

Since 2014, hundreds of thousands of migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives. Last year alone, merchant ships rescued an estimated 40,000 people, in some cases more than 500 people at a time, creating serious risks to the health and welfare of seafarers who are unprepared and untrained to take on such rescues.

Echoing the call to action, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Koji Sekimizu, has also called for coordinated action to safeguard migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

“The deaths of hundreds of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean within sight of a potential rescue ship once again highlight the need for urgent action to be taken against those unscrupulous criminals whose greed and lack of respect for human life allow them to cram hundreds of innocent, desperate people into unsuitable craft with no concern for their safety. At the same time, I call upon Governments and the wider international community to expedite their efforts to take coordinated action to safeguard migrants and to manage the flow of migrants across borders in ways that do not lead to them being exploited and taken to sea in unsafe craft”.

He added, “The international maritime search and rescue system created through IMO instruments was not designed to handle the huge flows of migrants that are currently being seen in the Mediterranean.”

On Monday, the European Union agreed to a 10-point plan to prevent more tragedies in the Mediterranean, which included reinforcing the EU’s maritime patrolling operations called Triton and Poseidon by giving them more money and equipment.

The EU operation Triton has been criticized by humanitarian groups and authorities for being inadequate compared to Italy’s “Mare Nostrum” search-and-rescue operation, which was cancelled last year due to funding issues.