Merchant ships’ role in rescuing distressed migrants

Last year, merchant ships rescued more than 40,000 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. That number may very well rise in 2015, since 1,750 migrants have died on the Mediterranean since January, which is 30 times the deaths as the same period last year. In April, an estimated 750 people died on a boat crossing from Libya, and only 28 passengers survived.

International law requires ship captains, or masters, to “render assistance to those lost at sea without regard to their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they’re found,” says Kiran Khosla, director of legal affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping. But she points out masters can’t determine the status of those they rescue, whether they’re refugees or face criminal charges for smuggling.

A merchant ship might come across a distressed vessel or be asked by a rescue co-ordination centre to assist a nearby ship, explains John Murray, marine director at the ICS. Masters don’t have to perform a rescue if it endangers their ship or crew, but they must justify their decision or face a penalty for breaking international law. And sometimes rescues don’t go well. “Many modern merchant ships are very high-sided,” says Grant Hunter, chief officer of legal and contractual affairs at the Baltic and International Maritime Council. The ships can have trouble sailing past small migrant ships, and could “make the situation worse [by] perhaps colliding with the vessel.” Crews on merchant ships also aren’t trained for search and rescue or medical care beyond basic first aid.

Once rescued migrants are aboard, the crew must divide the resources on a ship stocked for 20 among potentially hundreds of migrants. “Ships generally are well provided with water,” says Murray. But they can run out of food and medical supplies quickly, and ship owners must cover the costs of additional supplies, fuel and port fees, although they’re generally reimbursed by protection and indemnity insurance. As for customers annoyed their cargo came late, “there are usually provisions agreed in that contract to allow that ship to [rescue persons in distress] without putting [them] in breach of their contract,” says Khosla, adding that’s in recognition of masters’ legal obligation to help.

The ICS is pleased with the European Union’s April decision to triple the budget for Operation Triton, its border security operation, but says it’s too early to tell if those funds will be sufficient. “We have yet to see the details of delivery or the effects of whether that meets the need, which is growing exponentially,” says Murray. But he is adamant that shipping “not be seen as part of the solution in the longterm. We have a role to play in any emergency but we are not part of the solution.

Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the May 2015 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine

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