Kicking the can down the road

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Tanya Blake SAS Editor. Credit: IHS Markit

The issue of migration has become a political football in EU countries – many of whom are cutting down their own search-and-rescue efforts and preventing people rescued at sea from seeking refuge from entering their ports. As a result, it is increasingly falling to merchant ships to pick up the slack.

Unfortunately, the risks of conducting such rescues have been highlighted recently with reports that Palau-flagged tanker Elhiblu 1 had been taken over by migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea in March.

The tanker crew were ordered by Libyan authorities to take the migrants to Tripoli, but they reported that the migrants allegedly became violent and forced the 12 seafarers to sail north towards Europe instead.

It is a legal and moral obligation for crew to rescue people in distress at sea. However, as we have stressed many times in articles and commentary in SAS, this is by no means an easy task for crew to undertake, and can put them and their ship in danger. Not to mention, if refused entry to ports of refuge in the EU, they might be left for days with hundreds of civilians on board, many of whom may be hungry, ill, scared, or suffering injuries.

News has since emerged that five of the alleged ringleaders will likely face criminal charges for hijacking under Maltese law. However, as you can read in the June edition of SAS magasine, some believe the incident may not be so clear cut.

In such volatile cases, it can be easy to rush to judgement but in such high stress and politically charged situations it is important to wait for the real facts to emerge. Unfortunately, reports so far may serve to put off other crews from attempting to rescue migrants in a similar situation.

Ultimately, in such rescues we must ensure the safety of crew, as well as those in need of rescue at sea, and not treat seafarers like criminals for attempting to carry out their duty of discharging migrants at the closest port, rather than returning them to their country of origin, as some countries would like them to do. Of course, forcing crews to return migrants to countries they are fleeing due to unacceptable living conditions could be argued as the real reason the crew were put at risk.

Crew need to be trained and prepared for the dangers and trauma of such rescues, and shipping organisations must put pressure on the EU to stop turning their backs on the issue of mass migration or risk seeing more cases such as this one.

Some organisations are making efforts to hold the EU and its various local agencies to account. After news of the Elhiblu 1 hijacking, the International Chamber of Shipping issued a statement flagging concerns over the safety risks involved in refugee rescues. It stressed that masters should expect coastal states’ search and rescue authorities to co-ordinate and provide disembarkation in a safe place for the seafarers and those rescued.

Earlier in the year, the news of Germany’s withdrawal from EU Navfor MED’s Operation Sophia, the EU’s naval operation to deter mass maritime migration across the Mediterranean Sea, was met with calls from Ralf Nagel, the chief executive of the German Shipowners’ Association, to the EU to “finally take action now” and end the paralysis on such an important topic.

As Nagel concluded, “The extremely dangerous migration across the Mediterranean Sea will not cease simply because of the dispute raging in Europe.”