Friday, November 28, 2014

Merchant Shipping Threatened With Prosecution as Governments Bail Out

Death Toll Could Rise by Tens of Thousands as Authorities Water Down Their Legal Responsibilities to Migrants
Shipping News Feature

EUROPE – It seems in the purview of many governments these days to make statements about changes in policy to save costs with little thought given to the legal ramifications of what they are decreeing. Such is the horrific case of migrants travelling into Europe across the Mediterranean Straits and running into trouble. In October the UK government stated it would no longer assist with the rescue of refugees fleeing from the North African coast, often in small or unseaworthy boats totally unsuited to the task.

The announcement came as the Italian government, which has had a hand in the rescue of tens of thousands of fleeing migrants, decided to end Operation Mare Nostrum, the initiative which has seen the country’s navy and coastguard save 90,000 lives since it was introduced just a year ago with a papal blessing on the island of Lampedusa where many of the fleeing are headed.

UK Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said that Mare Nostrum had encouraged traffickers to launch more sorties with unseaworthy craft believing the helpless migrants would then be rescued, but critics said the reason for a quadrupling of recorded deaths since its inception was simply due to more being discovered too late by the authorities. Mare Nostrum came in the wake of 366 dying in one incident which appalled the world but this turnabout by the Italians, mainly due to the cost of the operation, has now brought criticism from Pope Francis who said:

"There needs to be a united response to the question of migration. We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery. The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance."

There is however as we say a legal aspect to this matter which governments seem to be ignoring. The 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) entered into force in 1985 and clearly delineates the responsibilities of governments with regard to accidents at sea and the rescue of persons in distress. The terms of the Convention are unequivocal, it places responsibilities on governments which extend the standard terms under which a skipper must go to the aid of the distressed party, enshrined in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) 1974, which itself evolved from the original Convention of 1914 in the wake of the Titanic disaster.

Now Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI) has raised concerns about the implications for masters of the recent reports of the launch of the new EU Frontex operation ‘Triton’, the cut price replacement for Mare Nostrum. Brian Orrell OBE, Chairman of the Advisory Board of SRI said:

“The obligation of masters to assist persons in distress at sea is steeped in maritime tradition and legal history. It is therefore of concern if budgets for search and rescue in the Mediterranean are being reduced. This may increase the number of search and rescue missions that masters have to undertake, as well as their risks of criminal prosecution for any perceived failure to attend to persons endangered at sea.“

In other words the governments are throwing the obligations and costs for humanitarian actions back on the shipping industry, with no reward for any efforts made and the threat of prosecution for inaction. Two weeks ago IMO Secretary General Mr Koji Sekimizu addressed the Maritime Safety Committee and said over 600 merchant ships diverted from their routes to rescue persons at sea in the first ten months of 2014, such rescues being undertaken generally with no prospect of recovering costs incurred or salvage.

The terrible fact is simply that by reducing the assets available to rescue the tens of thousands crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life, for many there will be an horrendous death far from land or hope.

Photo: The Kiribati flagged MV Baris was found drifting by the Hellenic Navy last week with over 700 souls crammed aboard, more than 500 of whom were women and children from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The ship was kept at sea for three days until all aboard were proved free of Ebola.