Mediterranean refugee crisis continues to challenge shipping

A rescue in 2015 by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station in the Mediterranean Sea. Credit: MOAS.EU/Jason Florio


“When you see death, it is very different from seeing it on the television or in films; it touches deeply on your heart and your humanity,” Antoine Laurent told Safety at Sea. He is a ‘lifeguard’ and maritime adviser at SOS Méditerranée, an NGO involved in the frantic operation to rescue migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to escape war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.


Laurent is describing the trauma that seafarers on merchant vessels may face if they become involved in a rescue operation while en route between North Africa and Italy. “It is a humanitarian crisis and when you are not prepared to face that it is a real shock. You are discovering something you never imagined possible before,” he said.


Shipping has always had a legal requirement to provide assistance to anyone in distress at sea, but large-scale rescue operations raise specific challenges. Crews and ship managers need to plan ahead for how to respond at the scene and communicate effectively with migrants, many of whom will be hungry and perhaps in a state of panic, carry sufficient food and water, and have procedures in place for seafarers who experience emotional trauma as a result of seeing death and suffering first-hand.


Although the majority of migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean are carried out by the Italian coastguard or NGO vessels, such as those run by SOS Méditerranée, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, and Sea Watch, merchant and military vessels are still an important cog in the wheel and are involved in about 10–15% of incidents.


John Murray, marine director and head of the marine department at the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), told Safety at Sea, “Apart from the tragedy affecting migrants, we are concerned about the potential risk and ongoing danger to ships' crews after migrants have embarked.” He added that with large numbers of desperate people onboard and only about 30 people in the average crew, it makes the situation very challenging.


A total of 111,514 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea during the first six months of 2017, less than half the 244,722 arrivals during the same period of last year. While that fall-off might appear encouraging, both periods resulted in similar numbers of deaths: 2,360 in 2017 versus 2,997 last year. This is thought to be the result of a shortage of search-and-rescue vessels and the number of unsafe boats being provided by smugglers and traffickers in Libya.


SOS Méditerranée launched its own rescue ship, Aquarius, in February 2016 and has since directly rescued more than 15,000 people and transferred a further 5,000 people from other merchant ships to transport to Italy, where 85% of migrants and refugees currently disembark.


Masters who receive a distress signal from a migrant vessel in the region are advised, under regulations set out in SOLAS and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to immediately contact the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome. Alternatively, the MRCC may contact the master in the first instance, to request assistance as part of a co-ordinated rescue effort when there are not enough NGO or coastguard vessels available to respond.


“Merchant vessels may be needed if NGO ships are in the process of transporting migrants to Italy – a three-day journey – or docked at port to pick up supplies,” Laurent explained.

Vessels previously called upon include tankers, container ships, and tugs working in Libyan economic waters, or platform supply vessels working on Libyan oil rigs off Tripoli. Ships on the main trade route, from the Suez Canal to Gibraltar, are rarely involved as they are too far from the offshore rescue area.


Ensuring a safe rescue

A critical factor when dealing with large-scale rescue at sea is the number of people involved, which can make the process of rescue and embarkation very challenging and potentially hazardous.


A rescue vessel such as Aquarius is able to accommodate up to 1,000 people, it carries three rigid inflatable boats, 800 lifejackets, and 15 m-long banana buoys designed for migrants to clamber on to in the event of a capsize. Merchant ships are not designed for these circumstances, carry less specialised rescue equipment, and therefore require different techniques and procedures.


The chance of panic is never far away in a migrant rescue scenario, when many people have come from inland Africa and never been to sea before. “If they realise that the means of escape being offered, such as a fast rescue craft or a ladder up to the ship, is not accessible to everyone, it can lead to distress and infighting to ensure their own survival,” said Laurent. “People may fall into the water or the boat could capsize, throwing everyone overboard without lifejackets.”


Therefore, best practice when approaching a migrant vessel is to keep your distance, contact the MRCC, and wait for a coastguard or NGO ship to arrive. “If you have a migrant boat in sight, always assume it is in distress, even if the engine is running and it is moving at 5 kt,” said Laurent.


If external help is not nearby, the advice is to try to explain to migrants the means of escape and how they will collectively gain access to it and be made safe. When all people are embarked, a merchant ship will typically be advised to wait for an NGO or Italian coastguard vessel to arrive to carry out a transfer operation and provide proper humanitarian care.


For ships operating in areas where a large-scale rescue is more likely to happen, consider carrying additional lifesaving appliances and personal protective equipment, as well as food and water supplies.


Details on all relevant procedures and preparations are included in the guidance Large scale rescue operations at sea, published by the ICS. This is supplemented by information in the International Aeronautical and Maritime SAR Manual, the International Safety Management Code, and included in the company’s safety management system.


A key area to consider is regular training and drills for procedures, such as sending a distress relay or launching a fast rescue craft, if there is one onboard. “It is important to ensure that everything works and your seafarers are familiarised with the boat so that when a rescue operation begins, everyone's attention is focused purely on the operation itself,” said Laurent.


As migrants continue to flee north across the Mediterranean, commercial vessels could find themselves more heavily involved. Potential problems on the horizon include the activities of the Defend Europe movement, a right-wing group that may try to stop the work of NGO vessels, placing additional pressure on commercial operators. In addition, the impact of the proposed European Union NGO Code of Conduct, which could prevent NGOs from accessing Italian ports unless they sign up, has been raised by organisations such as Human Rights at Sea.


“The problem is massive and ongoing and shipping will continue to play its role,” Murray said. “These issues will be discussed at a series of meetings during the [northern] summer, conducted by the IMO with the ICS and other lead agencies, such as the the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration.” 

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