Desperate times in the Med
In recent years the Mediterranean has seen an explosion in the numbers of people fleeing North Africa to seek safe haven in Europe. These are desperate people, some escaping despotic regimes or economic or political volatility in their own countries.
In their desperation they are often at the mercy of unscrupulous people traffickers; and often their sea crossing is made in unsuitable and unseaworthy vessels. It is thought that in the last few years thousands of lives have been lost as these refugee craft have foundered.
This growing problem has led to increasing tensions between national authorities, shipowners and masters as merchant ships have had to respond to ever increasing numbers of distress calls from these motley vessels. All seafarers know, uphold, and are comforted by the centuries-old tradition that ships respond to those in distress at sea and do everything to rescue those in peril and save lives. This is a proud and firmly established code. However, the problem in the Mediterranean is not normal and it has reached such a pitch that some shipowners are altering their ships’ established courses through the Med.
Some merchant ships involved in these rescues have small crews and lack the facilities to rescue and then embark large numbers of these refugees. Such operations therefore not only raise health and safety implications but real security issues too. There are also significant problems as to how and where those rescued are then landed – and the attitude of the authorities at the ‘reception’ ports where the master seeks to disembark those rescued.
An initiative has been launched by the United Nations Refugee Agency to cut the numbers of lives lost in the Mediterranean and to protect the position of merchant ships and masters and seafarers who effect these rescues. In reality, present day merchant ships with manning cut to the bone are ill fitted to this role in these volatile times. As with the problem of piracy, a concerted international presence with suitable rescue craft is needed in this key international shipping area and a clear policy on reception ports must also be agreed.
The present situation is a complex one but shipowners, masters and seafarers should not be penalised in any way for upholding an honourable tradition of aiding those in distress at sea – even when these wretched people have been deliberately placed in such situations by criminal people traffickers. The present situation in the Mediterranean is unique and very different from the normal search and rescue incidents which masters might face.HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR