Migrant vessel takeover raises concerns

Army forces stand onboard El Hiblu 1 that was hijacked by migrants it had rescued off Libya, Credit: MATTHEW MIRABELLI/AFP/Getty Images

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has issued a statement flagging concerns about the safety risks involved in refugee rescues after news reports emerged that Palau-flagged tanker Elhiblu 1 had been taken over by migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea.

According to Aljazeera news, the vessel had rescued 120 people and was headed for the Libyan capital of Tripoli when it suddenly altered direction towards Italy or Malta. It is suspected that the migrants overpowered the crew and forced the course change to claim refuge either in Malta or at the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Governments in both countries have publicly taken hard stances against allowing disembarkation of the refugees, putting the crew of the tanker in a difficult position. “If a ship is directed to disembark rescued people in Libya, it creates a potential for conflict between the crew and desperate and frustrated people that might object to being returned,” said ICS Secretary General, Guy Platten.

“Given the numbers picked up in such large scale rescue operations, the crew of the rescuing ship can easily be outnumbered and overwhelmed.  Masters of merchant ships should expect that coastal states’ search and rescue authorities will co-ordinate and provide for disembarkation in a place of safety, both for those rescued and for the seafarers involved in the rescue.”

‘Since the Italian Government changed its previous policy of providing prompt and predicable disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea, the current incident is one which the industry has feared’ he added.

“ICS is carefully watching this new development, which it will seek to raise with the UN International Maritime Organization which is in session in London this week.”

The ICS head urged stakeholders to consider the impact of such situations on the crew of the vessels. “The merchant seafarers on board the ship involved in these incidents are civilians,” he said.  “They can be severely affected by the traumatic situations they have to face, having complied with their legal and humanitarian obligation to come to the rescue of anyone found in distress at sea.”

Although details of the incident are still emerging, ICS praised initial reports that the Maltese authorities have taken action to ensure that the situation is safely resolved.

Merchant ships are still diverted by Rescue Co-ordination Centres to support large scale rescue operations in the Mediterranean, having rescued tens of thousands of people since the current crisis began in 2015.