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The risks of rescue at sea

A boat carrying sub-Saharan African migrant workers arrives in Lampedusa from Tripoli. Thousands of migrants have made the perilous journey Kate Thomas/IRIN
Two years ago, Abdiselam Sheik Omar left his home town of Jijiga in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region and embarked on a journey he hoped would take him across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and eventually to Saudi Arabia. “It’s easy to find work there,” he told IRIN. “The problem is crossing the sea.”

Omar was well aware of the risks and hardships, having made the journey twice before. He knew that during the three- to five-day crossing from Puntland in northern Somalia there would be little to eat or drink, and his smugglers would not hesitate to beat uncooperative passengers or even throw them off the boat.

When the rickety, overloaded boat he was on started sinking, one of the migrants drowned before the remaining 34 were rescued by the Yemeni Coast Guard. The passengers and their smugglers were arrested and jailed on reaching Yemen, but Omar was glad to be alive.

After 20 days he was released and made it as far as the border with Saudi Arabia before being arrested again. This time he was deported back to Ethiopia. “I won’t try it again, even though I’m jobless,” he said.

Every year, thousands of migrants risk hazardous sea crossings in a desperate bid to escape poverty, persecution or conflict. If they run into trouble, as many do, their only hope of being rescued is a long-standing maritime code of conduct backed by numerous international protocols that compel passing ships to render assistance to any vessel in distress.

In the last year alone, cruise ships have picked up Cuban migrants off the coast of Florida, the Indonesian navy has rescued Afghan nationals trying to reach Australia, and Spanish authorities have assisted African refugees and migrants drifting in the Mediterranean.

Many other sinking or capsized vessels were either missed or ignored, and countless migrants have lost their lives at sea. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that between February and October this year, 2,000 mostly African migrants fleeing the crisis in Libya drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Since the beginning of 2011, a further 131 Somali and Ethiopian refugees and migrants have perished in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden trying to reach Yemen.


The discovery of a small vessel in apparent distress represents a dilemma for ships’ masters, particularly in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, where pirates are most active.

“It’s very difficult to distinguish from a distance whether it’s a boat with migrants or with pirates, so they assume it may be pirates,” said Captain Hartmut Hesse of the International Maritime Organization.

''It's very difficult to distinguish from a distance whether it's a boat with migrants or with pirates, so they assume it may be pirates''
Current guidance to the shipping industry on the threat of piracy advises ships to keep their distance from small vessels. It does not deal with the possibility that they could be carrying migrants in need of assistance, said John Murray of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). "The other big issue is that ships must know that coastal states will meet their obligations in disembarking people rescued at sea."

For ships’ masters everywhere, the biggest disincentive for picking up migrants in distress is the real possibility that they will waste time and money looking for a country willing to let them come ashore.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention) and the International Convention on Maritime Sea and Rescue (SAR Convention) both outline the duty of relevant countries to cooperate and coordinate rescue operations at sea, but many are unwilling to accept undocumented migrants.

“They should be offered a place of safety in the closest country from where they were picked up,” said Christopher Horwood, coordinator of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), run by the Danish Refugee Council in Nairobi, which provides information and support for migration responses between the Horn of Africa and Yemen. "There are worrying signs that countries are not living up to their responsibilities... some are not even permitting [ships with rescued migrants] to dock."

Whether the ship is a commercial vessel contracted to deliver cargo by a certain date or a military vessel patrolling a coastline, the probability of a delay in disembarking migrants "is likely to undermine some of the commitment to picking people up," said Murray. "That’s the real world; that’s the world we live in."

Most ships these days have small crews and are not equipped to provide food and accommodation to extra passengers for days at a time.

Lack of cooperation

The problem is not new. A decade ago, Australian authorities refused to permit a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, carrying 438 Afghan nationals rescued from a fishing boat drifting in international waters near Christmas Island, to enter Australian waters. The episode sparked a political controversy in Australia and a diplomatic spat between Australia and Norway.

Despite much debate about how future incidents could be avoided and amendments to maritime law, the problems have continued, said Anja Klug, head of the UNHCR asylum/migration unit. “We think the real problem lies in the lack of cooperation among the different states involved in these situations."

At an experts meeting convened by UNHCR in Djibouti recently, Klug and her colleagues presented some practical tools aimed at improving cooperation and burden-sharing of sea rescue operations between states in regions affected by high levels of migration.

One such tool is a model framework that provides for government cooperation in establishing regional task forces to oversee rescue operations, identifying the most appropriate countries for disembarkation, and ensuring that adequate arrangements are in place to receive and process rescued migrants with varying claims to international protection.

"We’re not aiming for this to be adopted on a binding global level," Klug told IRIN. "We want countries to come together and assess their needs. [UNHCR] can facilitate, but ultimately governments need to come to agreements."

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At the meeting, UNHCR also proposed that “mobile protection response teams”, staffed by experts from government, UNHCR and other international organizations, be dispatched to countries lacking the resources or capacity to deal with an influx of migrants and asylum seekers arriving by boat.

"Normally, reception arrangements are a task of governments but they sometimes don’t have the capacity," said Klug. UNHCR, together with the International Organization for Migration and other NGOs, are already providing such assistance along the coast of Yemen and on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where large numbers of migrants have come ashore in recent months as a result of the crisis in Libya.

Need for guidance

Another UNHCR document suggests some basic standard operating procedures for ships' masters who encounter migrants in trouble at sea, such as what constitutes a "distress situation" and what information should be sought from rescued persons.

Murray, who attended the Djibouti meeting for the International Chamber of Shipping, said there was a need for such guidance but emphasized that it was not the role of a ship's crew to categorize people. "We feel very strongly there should be no pressure on the ship’s master to engage in any processing or profiling of people who’ve been recovered. As far as the ship is concerned, they’re people in distress at sea," he told IRIN.

Noting that boats rescued at sea often contain a complex mixture of asylum seekers, economic migrants and people with special needs, such as minors, Horwood of RMMS agreed that "It shouldn’t be the burden of a ship captain to decide if he’s got economic migrants or refugees. Many of the migrants don’t qualify for international protection, even though they might be on the same boat as those that do. This is the phenomenon of mixed migration."

Horwood welcomed the UNHCR initiative. "These people are victims of situations [that cause them to migrate] and on top of that they find themselves rejected when they’re genuinely in distress at sea."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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