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Shipping bodies call on EU to assist as Med migrant rescues rise

A host of shipping-related associations have penned an open letter to the European Union’s top politicians including president Ursula von der Leyen calling for prompt and predictable disembarkations for people rescued at sea by merchant vessels.

The letter, penned in the wake of the 38-day-long Maersk Etienne immigrant saga, states that merchant vessels need to be able to conclude rescues safely, promptly and predictably both for those rescued and the rescuing seafarers.

Merchant ships are neither built nor equipped to rescue and sustain large groups of distressed people

“States must ensure that the vessels and the masters of those vessels carrying persons in distress whom they have rescued at sea are relieved as soon as reasonably possible in accordance with international law,” the letter from the European and international shipowners’ associations and European and international seafarers’ unions argues.

A 38-day standoff onboard Maersk Tankers vessel Maersk Etienne involving 27 refugees create worldwide headlines earlier this month and brought the shipping industry together seeking stronger political resolve to handle immigrant rescues at sea situations in the future.

The Danish-flagged ship rescued the migrants, who were stranded in Tunisian waters, on August 4 at the request of Maltese officials. However, once rescued the refugees were forced to remain onboard the tanker as authorities in both Malta and Denmark dragged their feet in finding a solution for the refugees.

Since the height of the migrant crisis in 2014, merchant ships have helped rescue more than 80,000 distressed persons in the waters of the central Mediterranean.

Whilst the numbers of persons crossing these waters has decreased, evidence suggests this trend is now reversing with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency recently reporting an 86% increase in the number of migrant transits through the central route compared to the same period for 2019.

Regulations such as UNCLOS and SOLAS place complementary obligations on ships and coastal states to ensure the rescue of persons in distress at sea, regardless of their nationality, status, or circumstances in which they are found, and disembark them in a place of safety as per instructions received from the search and rescue (SAR) authority coordinating the SAR operation.

“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,” the letter to EU politicians points out.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.

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