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Mixed migration at sea in the Mediterranean

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The first quarter of the calendar year is usually packed full with shipyard refits, new crew assignments, and owners deciding on their summer plans. Unfortunately, the beginning of this year saw some unfortunate actions in the Mediterranean Sea.

Large numbers of migrants continue their trek northward in the hopes of new lives. It is becoming an all-too-familiar story and it is one to be one the lookout for this upcoming European charter season.

In 2013, the Italian government began a program known as Operation Mare Nostrum. This is the old Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea. This program was a naval and air operation intended to stop the large-scale immigration of people from North Africa to Europe. The operation officially ended in October.

Operation Triton followed. This new program is overseen by the EU’s agency for border security known as Frontex. It operates with a much smaller search and rescue capability.

Unlike Mare Nostrum, Operation Triton focuses on border protection rather than search and rescue. Where Mare Nostrum focused its operations near Libya and the African coast, Triton operates closer to the Italian coast.

Unfortunately, the success of the Operation Mare Nostrum created an unintended “pull factor,” inadvertently encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing. With the increased number of search-and-rescue vessels, people were sure to be rescued. This amplified volume of people thereby led to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.

On a positive note, it is estimated that more than 100,000 lives were saved in the Mediterranean last year.

The early part of 2015 demonstrates an even larger concern for renewed immigration. The number of people who attempted to cross the sea from North Africa to Italy was only fractionally smaller than the number who crossed in the same period last year. In January and February, when stormy seas usually act as a deterrent to all but the bravest, there were even higher numbers than in 2014. Only a quiet March brought the overall figure down.

Increased action in April reversed that trend and returned the overall numbers to record highs. In April alone, two major migrant shipwreck disasters killed more than 1,000 people within the span of a week.

Perhaps more significantly, the number of people drowning in the Mediterranean during the first quarter of 2015 increased by a multiple of 10. In fact, if the 2015 death toll continues at the current rate, it will easily surpass last year’s record of more than 3,400. A logical conclusion is that the decision to end Mare Nostrum has so far neither acted as a deterrent, nor prevented more deaths.

Regretfully, a large portion of this migration is being done for monetary gain. There is a legal framework in place to make this a crime. The Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air is an annex to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.  The organized, international crime in the Mediterranean needs to be addressed, with collective action by all concerned to detain, arrest and prosecute people smugglers.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) can play its part, but the ultimate solution lies in the collaboration among several other bodies and UN agencies. These include the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, INTERPOL, the African Union, the European Union and European Commission, and the Economic Commissions for Africa and for Europe.​

In order for merchant ships to properly respond to the discovery of migrant vessels, the High-Level Meeting to Address Unsafe Mixed Migration by Sea was held at the headquarters of the IMO in London. The meeting was held to facilitate a dialogue and promote enhanced cooperation and harmonization between United Nations agencies, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, governments, and the shipping industry.

To help ships and yachts prepare for potential discoveries while at sea, a publication jointly authored by the IMO, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was issued. It is titled, “Rescue at Sea: A guide to principles and practice as applied to refugees and migrants.” The publication ​is intended for masters, owners, government authorities, insurance companies, and other interested parties involved in rescue-at-sea situations. It provides guidance on relevant legal provisions, on practical procedures to ensure the prompt disembarkation of rescued persons, and on measures to meet their specific needs, particularly in the case of refugees and asylum-seekers. The 12-page publication can be downloaded for free at: www.unhcr.org/450037d34.html.

As the captain of a vessel of any size, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea dictates that, “Every state shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, insofar as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers: (a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost; (b) to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, insofar as such action may reasonably be expected of him.”

The rescue of potential migrants at sea raises multiple issues for a yacht including economic, legal, and moral questions. For example, if a migrant is denied asylum, is the yacht responsible for repatriation? If a yacht transports rescued migrants to an unaccepting country, is the owner liable for immigration violations? What if one of the rescued migrants poses a security risk? The list of questions only starts there.

This situation is a tragic one. These migrants are not only seeking a better life for themselves, but also attempting to escape a situation that has left them with no other choice but to flee.  That can be from famine, war, or crime. While many questions remain unanswered for the plight of these individuals, it is imperative that yachts prepare their crews for the potential of a rescue at sea.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), an organization that provides flag-state inspection services to yachts on behalf of several administrations. A deck officer graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as designated person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at +1 954-596-2728 or www.yachtbureau.org. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

 

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