A group of shipping bodies and associations sent an open letter to European Commissioners, including President Ursula von der Leyen, calling for prompt and predictable disembarkations of persons rescued by merchant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.
Since the height of the migrant crisis in 2014, merchant ships, assisted by European States and operations in the region, have helped rescue over 80,000 distressed persons in Central Mediterranean. And while the numbers of persons crossing these waters has decreased, evidence suggests this trend is now reversing with Frontex recently reporting an 86% increase in the number of migrant transits through the central route compared to the same period for 2019.
The letter, signed by ECSA, ICS, ITF and ETF, highlights this is deeply alarming to the shipping industry, as the migrant routes pass through international shipping lanes, increasing the likelihood of merchant ships being called on to conduct rescues. The letter comes in the light of recent incidents, such as the 27 refugees who were forced to remain onboard the Maersk Etienne, which “demonstrate there is no guarantee that those ships will receive prompt and adequate assistance when fulfilling their humanitarian responsibilities“.
Merchant ships will not shrink from their legal and moral responsibility to render assistance to those in need of assistance at sea. However, merchant ships are neither built nor equipped to rescue and sustain large groups of distressed people. This places huge pressure on the crews providing humanitarian help. Even when following best practice guidance, provisions for first aid, medical care and food and water are not adapted to large groups of distressed persons – it is therefore essential that rescued persons can be disembarked at the earliest opportunity in a place of safety – as the law demands,
…the letter states.
To ensure merchant vessels conclude rescues safely, states must ensure that the vessels and the masters carrying persons in distress whom they have rescued at sea are relieved as soon as reasonably possible in accordance with international law, such as UNCLOS and SOLAS.
While the extra pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic are fully acknowledged, it remains vital that States fulfil their obligations to cooperate in rescue and disembarkation and find pragmatic and swift solutions so that commercial vessels involved in SAR operations are provided with a safe port to promptly disembark rescued migrants.
Recent incidents have seen merchant ships denied their right to disembark rescued persons in European States, resulting in a humanitarian crisis onboard for rescued people and crew alike.
These situations highlight the need for long-term solutions and a coordinated framework between EU Member States in relation to their obligations under international law to coordinate rescue operations. This should include the provision of clarity and predictability in all such cases, guaranteeing prompt disembarkations of people rescued by merchant ships in a location which minimises the risk to the safety and security of ships, rescued persons, masters and crews, consistent with the obligations of SOLAS,
…the letter reads.
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