A treacherous journey

The International Chamber of Shipping hopes to drive collaboration with international organisations in a bid to put an end to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.


This year, thousands of migrants have perished attempting to make the journey from northern Africa across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life. The numbers always increase in the warmer summer months and NGOs and search and rescue (SAR) organisations are working tirelessly to save migrants in danger.


In addition, the Italian Coast Guard and crew on merchant vessels often go above and beyond the call of duty to conduct mass rescue missions while putting themselves in danger too. However, voices are starting to call for a better way to prevent more migrants' lives being lost at sea.


“While it is very poorly publicised, merchant ships are still picking up hundreds of migrants and taking them to Italy,” Peter Hinchliffe, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) told SAS. “We are very grateful to the Italian government for allowing ships to come in. However, crews are being traumatised as they are dealing with very ill people and witnessing a lot of death and they are not trained to do that.”


On average there is one merchant ship diverted every day in the Mediterranean to deal with a potential migrant rescue, according to Hinchliffe, even if it is to act as a standby for the Italian Coast Guard.


He feels strongly that the migrant rescue situation has become untenable and that more must be done to stem the thousands of people risking their lives and dying each year. “As long as Europe is in control of organising the refugee crisis we are never going to stop the number of deaths by drowning in the Mediterranean. The simple reason is that there are only controls in place once migrants reach EU shores.”


At the time of writing, International Organization for Migration (IOM) data said 103,175 migrants had arrived at Europe by sea so far in 2017, with 2,357 either dead or reported missing in the Mediterranean.


Matthew Saltmarsh, spokesman for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the “frustrations of ship masters who do not hesitate to come to the aid of those in distress, but who feel that they are being asked to palliate the symptoms of a much broader and deeper humanitarian crisis, are clear and understood”.


He added that the “extraordinary” response to search and rescue in the central Mediterranean by coastal states, civil society, merchant shipping, and others was vital but “not sufficient to meet the challenges”, particularly without deeper co-operation between states.


Instead he echoed Hinchliffe’s sentiment- that more must be done to address the root causes of refugee displacement and the drivers of unsafe migration, “including giving people safe and realistic alternatives to dangerous journeys”.


But how can such a large and complex problem be tackled? Joe Millman, IOM press officer, said while the death rates were shocking, and perhaps were even higher than recorded, if you factor in bodies washed up on the shores of countries such as Libya, that the migration numbers themselves were “not explosive and it is not a never-ending problem”.


“We know this from what migrants tell us. For example, the criminals and terrorists who are taking money to help get them to sea follow them and steal the boat engines and are stealing their cell phones,” explained Millman. “These are criminals doing this. Dangerous men. But they are not thriving on big enterprise and hopefully it is a business we can wipe out.”


Millman and Hinchliffe agree that the way this can be done is by making migration safe, secure, and legal for all. Hinchliffe would like to see the establishment of a UN humanitarian rescue zone across the central Mediterranean and shore stations on the north African coast in places such as Libya or Egypt. The idea would be to process people before they attempt the journey across the sea. Those who can legitimately qualify for migrant status can be given the appropriate documents and safely transported to Europe.  


However, Hinchliffe said the ICS wrote to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon 18 months ago with the idea but this was met with a “lacklustre” response: a reply that said the IOM, the office of the UNHCR, and the IMO were already involved with the refugee rescue process. Ban did not specifically comment on the proposal to establish shore-based processing centres.


Hinchliffe expressed his “absolute frustration” at the UN’s response. Instead the ICS now wants to take matters into its own hands and hopes to hold a summit involving the IMO, IOM, and the UNCHR to discuss the idea of shoreside stations, as well as any other viable solutions that could prevent migrant deaths at sea.


All three organisations spoke at the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) meeting in June and Hinchliffe said “they all understand that there is an issue and want to be part of a solution that cannot be found individually”.


Matthew Saltmarsh, spokesman for the UNCHR, said that this kind of action fell into the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (NYD) agreed to by UN member states last year.  In the declaration, member states commit, among other things, to ‘‘intensifying international co-operation on the strengthening of search and rescue mechanisms”.  


He added that the UNCHR welcomed further opportunities to speak with the IMO and the IOM to support the NYD follow-up processes and “respond to the challenges faced by states, seafarers, migrants, and refugees”.


Meanwhile, Chris Trelawny, special adviser to the secretary-general of the IMO on maritime security and facilitation, said the way forward was by promoting “appropriate and effective action” at the UN.


He stressed that the IMO, as a specialised agency of the UN, had a limited role. Nonetheless it can develop and adopt global standards for safe, secure and efficient shipping, and as such has a role to play.


Trelawny confirmed that the IMO was in contact with the IOM, UNHCR, and others with a view to organising a meeting but had no details on timings or the remit and agenda of the meeting.


Despite the uncertainties about this meeting, the desire to enact change is clear. “Processing of migrants and refugees in accordance with international law should take place in areas of safety ashore, with eligible persons brought forward in safe, properly equipped means of transport, including chartered passenger ferries,” said Trelawney. However, he stressed such an approach would require action at the broader UN level – something Hinchliffe has not seen much of so far.


Next steps



There is an acknowledgment that the current way of dealing with the migrant rescue system is more reactive than proactive. Trelawny said the IMO member states recognised that using the search and rescue system enshrined in the Safety of Life at Sea and SAR conventions to respond to mass mixed migration was “neither foreseen nor intended”.

He added, “Although governments and the merchant shipping industry will continue rescue operations, safe, legal, alternative pathways to migration must be developed, including safe, organised migration by sea, if necessary.”


For his part, Hinchliffe said the ICS would continue to put pressure on governments and he hopes to see the summit between the IMO, the UNHCR and the IOM occur and help to create meaningful action. “There should be a plan to deal with this. It is not a problem that will go away and we will be dealing with increasing numbers,” he said. “It is clear that the Italian government understand this but we are not seeing action from other governments. We cannot as a humanitarian society stand and do nothing.”

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