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Web alert: Mediterranean SAR crisis - the moral choice

27 November 2014

Current situation
In recent years there has been an exponential increase in the number of maritime search and rescue (SAR) incidents in the Mediterranean Sea involving migrants attempting to enter the European Union.  This migration is largely orchestrated by organized gangs of people traffickers who supply dangerously unseaworthy vessels to migrants who are desperate to gain access to the European mainland.  These vessels are often dangerously overloaded, resulting in a large migrant death toll which continues to grow.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that during the year 2013, 60,000 migrants had made the crossing. By October 2014 this figure had more than doubled to 165,000.

This crisis has an impact on our members, as most shipping organisations which operate routinely in the Mediterranean Sea have been involved in multiple migrant SAR operations, often at the request of the Italian government.   It is suspected that the traffickers now seek to take advantage of a master’s obligations under SOLAS, making merchant vessels a vehicle for their people trafficking efforts.  Such tactics have resulted in a large number of boats near Libyan coastal waters seeking the assistance of the first merchant vessel they observe, rather than attempting to make the dangerous passage to southern Europe.

Obligations under SOLAS
Due to the surge in SAR incidents, many ship owners are counting the costs of this disruption to their vessels' trade. The combination of this with the calculated tactics of traffickers has caused some within the industry to seek guidance on where their obligations under SOLAS lie.
Ship owners and masters should be under no illusion that, despite the special nature of the crisis facing the maritime industry within the Mediterranean, the requirement for a vessel to render aid to those in distress remains absolute, as codified in SOLAS regulation 33 ‘Distress situations: obligations and procedures’…
This obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of the nationality or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found.”
 
Whilst the level of disruption caused to those shipping organisations which have borne the brunt of such obligations should not be underestimated, such considerations are inconsequential when compared to the legal and moral obligation to render aid to those in peril.

Concerns over Ebola
Whilst Ebola is a major issue affecting parts of West Africa, it should not become a reason for vessels to avoid picking up migrants in distress. The primary duty of a ship’s master is to safeguard the lives of his crew and ensure the safety of the vessel; however this duty must be weighed up against his / her duty to provide assistance to those in distress.  There are occasions where it would be unwise to risk the safety of members of the ship’s crew where it is likely that they may also become distressed persons.  An example of such a situation would be the decision to not launch a rescue boat to rescue persons in the water in very heavy seas, when to do so would, in all likelihood, lead to the loss of the rescue boat as well.  However in such a circumstance the master is not relieved of his duty to provide what assistance he / she can in the prevailing circumstances and conditions.
Practically speaking it would be difficult to determine whether migrants were indeed suffering from Ebola.  A more realistic situation would be that, having deployed its fast rescue boat, a ship may discover that a number or all the migrants onboard were suffering some or all of the Ebola symptoms.  In such a scenario the master has a number of options open to him / her, taking into account the need to safe guard his / her crew members from possible exposure, and his / her obligation under SOLAS.
 
These options include but are not limited to: 

  1. Allowing the migrants to board the vessel by pilot ladder (for example) and keeping them segregated from the crew, by providing accommodation on the main deck or in the forecastle for example. This, of course, is dependent on the design of the ship and the availability of deck space etc.
  2. Taking their vessel in tow and / or providing a lee for the vessel, depending on its seaworthiness
  3. Deploying life rafts for migrant use
  4. Deploying life boats for migrant use, which could be taken in-tow
  5. In all of the above circumstances supplies of food, water, medicine etc could also be provided without undue risk of exposure using lines to lower them to the boat
  6. In all of the above circumstances a local MRCC or local authorities should be contacted using the “Mayday Relay” procedure. The rescuing vessel would almost certainly be required to remain on the scene until the incident was complete. 
  7. The master should ensure that crew involved in a SAR operation where a risk of Ebola is present wear the best PPE available, preferably full protective suite, gloves and face mask, although it may be the case that the vessel is not equipped with such material.

The master should use his / her discretion when formulating a course of action, which will largely be shaped by such factors as: local weather conditions, vessel type and the real risk that the ship's crew may be exposed to Ebola, which may only become apparent once a fast rescue boat has been deployed. If this is perceived to be a real risk, then deploying steps 2-6 above is still possible. In particular, step 6 will hopefully result in the shore-based local authorities (who have received specialist training) arriving quickly on the scene and, in the meantime, the master can provide a lee whilst help is awaited. The master should also take into account the willingness of the crew to expose themselves to the risk of Ebola.  Where possible, crew members should be asked to volunteer for such a role, this is an important consideration when one takes into account that such risks are beyond those they normally encounter and that they lack meaningful training for such a role.

Concerns over security
Another concern recently raised was that of terrorism, specifically that a migrant vessel may be used as a vehicle for terrorists to gain access to a merchant vessel.  Whilst a legitimate concern, it should be noted that, like Ebola, a ship's master would still be required to render assistance to distressed migrants unless some form of specific threat was detected by the crew, such as the presence of firearms on the boat.

Conclusion
The ending of the Italian Navies SAR mission ‘Mare Nostrum’ and its replacement by the less capable Frontex mission known as ‘Triton’ may result in more migrant boats seeking assistance from merchant vessels, this is especially true in the waters adjacent to the territorial waters of Libya. Masters should remain focused on their obligations under SOLAS until such time as measures are enacted to ease the burden placed upon them.