Shipping Industry Welcomes EU Decision on Mediterranean Rescue Mission, But Concerns Remain

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The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) have welcomed the decision by European Union leaders to triple resources of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, but question whether the move will be enough to prevent further loss of life of migrants trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.

During an emergency meeting of the European Council held Thursday, EU leaders agreed to triple the funding to Operation Triton to match that previously allocated to Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue mission, as well as to enhance Triton’s operational capability.

While the ICS and ECSA welcome the decision, the organizations say that the fact that operation Triton remains within the mandate of the EU border agency FRONTEX raises serious questions about its effectiveness.

Speaking from Brussels, Patrick Verhoeven, Secretary General of the ECSA commented: “EU leaders have agreed to increase resources and assets available for search and rescue operations, within the mandate of Frontex. Laudable as these efforts are, they still fall short of the scale and mandate of last year’s Italian operation Mare Nostrum, which saved hundreds of thousands of people in 2014. What is needed immediately is a similar, EU-led, large-scale search and rescue mission, able to operate far from the EU territorial waters, which is where most of the accidents involving migrants take place.”

Commenting on the operational capabilities of Triton, Peter Hinchliffe, Secretary General of the London-based ICS added: “We understand that the resources of Triton can be deployed in international waters when called upon by national Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres, but it remains highly doubtful whether they can rapidly reach areas near the Libyan coast, where most incidents tend to occur. It seems that merchant ships, which are not best equipped to rescue hundreds of people at a time, will continue to be called upon frequently to respond to requests for assistance. A clear mandate for humanitarian rescue operations by EU States still appears to be outstanding.”

In the past 16 months, merchant ships have participated in almost 1,000 migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean, leading to the rescue of more than 40,000 people, according to the ICS and ESCA.

BIMCO, the world’s largest shipping international shipping association, has also welcomed the decision by the EU and the contribution of extra ships, planes and helicopters by EU Member States to assist with the search and rescue, but also warns that rescuing migrants at sea will continue to pose a health, safety and security to seafarers at sea.

In a statement regarding the EU’s decision, Lars Robert Pedersen, Deputy Secretary General at BIMCO, said:

“The shipping industry has recently highlighted the risks to the health, safety and security of seafarers who assist distressed migrants in increasingly large numbers.

“Merchant ships are ill-equipped to deal with large-scale rescue operations involving many hundreds of migrants and it may compromise the safety of those onboard as well as those who they attempt to rescue.

“The long term problem of huge migratory flow in the Mediterranean has led to a humanitarian crisis at sea that merchant shipping is not equipped to handle. Migration is an issue for nations to resolve.

“The industry had called for an expansion of the geographical scope of Operation Triton to include areas where migrants are most likely to be found before they get into serious difficulty. This does not yet seem to have been addressed.”

According to the International Organization for Immigration, over 1,700 migrants are believed to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year (as of April 21), compared to the 56 migrant deaths reported by the same time in 2014. At the current rate, the IOM fears that the 2014 total of 3,279 migrant deaths may be surpassed this year in just a matter of weeks.

The IOM has called the EU decision “an important initial step” towards dealing with the crisis.

The crisis reached its tipping point on Sunday when a wooden fishing boat carrying about 800 people capsized off the coast of Libya as a cargo ship was coming to its aid. Over 750 are believed to have been died.