Germany’s withdrawal from EU Navfor MED’s Operation Sophia, the EU’s naval operation to deter mass maritime migration across the Mediterranean Sea, has been met with disappointment by the country’s shipping association.
The German Shipowners’ Association (VDR) has called on the EU to find a solution to the ongoing dispute over how to deal with refugees arriving by boat to European countries.
Ralf Nagel, chief executive officer of VDR, said, “We greatly regret the decision taken by the federal government. On the one hand, it is understandable that the German navy wants to withdraw for the time being in view of the deployment situations. On the other, however, if naval vessels no longer carry out any rescue missions because they cannot safely discharge the refugees rescued, how on earth are crew and vessels of the merchant navy expected to cope?”
Nagel called on the EU to “finally take action now” and end what he dubbed a paralysis on “such an important issue in human and political terms”. He warned without action, conditions will worsen for refugees and seafarers. “After all, the extremely dangerous migration across the Mediterranean Sea will not cease simply because of the dispute raging in Europe”, he concluded.
Rescue activities co-ordinated by EU national coastguards and naval vessels have been in place since 2015 and meant the involvement of the merchant navy has been largely unnecessary. However, as political debates around migration have become increasingly polarised, with popularist politicians taking a hard line against allowing refugees rescued at sea from entering their country’s ports, merchant vessels have been left to deal with the problem.
In July last year, for the first time Italy refused an oil rig supply vessel entry to deliver a group of 66 rescued asylum seekers to an Italian port. Italy said the commercial vessel should have waited for the migrants to be rescued by the Libyan coastguard, who would have taken them back to Libya.
There are concerns that merchant vessels are unequipped to deal with such scenarios, and can put the safety and health of crew at risk.
Nagel said that German shipowners “do justice to their responsibility” and comply with international maritime law to rescue people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, or if requested for assistance. However, he warned against the EU states increasing pressure on the maritime sector by abandoning the task of rescues.