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Secure at Sea: Spotting migrants at sea can leave captains in a quandary

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Secure at Sea: by Corey Ranslem

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. During my time with the U. S. Coast Guard, we conducted thousands of law enforcement operations, but this operation was much different. We were in the middle of the Straits of Florida and had just intercepted a fast-moving small vessel with a group of about eight to 10 people on board. This wasn’t a normal voyage or a sightseeing tour. We had just intercepted a migrant smuggling vessel.

All the people on board, ranging from young kids to adults, were terrified. We moved quickly and were able to stop the vessel, seize the GPS and apprehend the smuggler. This would be a scenario that would continue to play out in one form or another throughout my eight years with the U.S. Coast Guard.

The men and women of the Coast Guard work around the clock to intercept smuggling vessels and overloaded migrant boats. There were a number of cases we worked that would have resulted in a major loss of life had the Coast Guard not rescued the people on board these vessels.

The vessels would be barely seaworthy and many times extremely overloaded. Words cannot convey the horror of the conditions on board. There would be little or no food or fresh water, and human waste everywhere. The smugglers treated people with complete disregard. Those being smuggled would be beaten or threatened if they revealed the identity of the smugglers to law enforcement agencies. It was, and continues to be, a horrible situation.

Human trafficking and migrant smuggling have a high human cost. Many people who pay to be smuggled into the U.S. often don’t have the financial resources to cover the costs. Once they are in the United States, if their family or friends can’t pay, they are given “employment” by the smuggling organization. This so-called “employment” typically doesn’t end. As the migrant works for a pittance, the interest on their smuggling debt continues to rise, eventually to a point where they will never be able to repay it.

They can become enslaved to their smugglers or sold into human trafficking organizations. Once sold into human trafficking, they can be bought and sold like a regular commodity to the highest bidder. Sometimes these people are sold into sex trafficking organizations or left for dead. Without intervention, many will never see their families again.

Declining political conditions are resulting in continued migrant traffic in various parts of the world, most notably  the Caribbean, the Straits of Florida and the Mediterranean, although migrant vessels have been intercepted in other areas as well, including the English Channel. Faith-based organizations, NGO aid groups and government agencies are overwhelmed as they  struggle to care for and place people.

Vessel captains do have a duty under the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) convention to aid mariners in distress, which does include migrants. The SOLAS convention encourages flag states to develop specific regulations and guidance for their vessels to deal with these situations, so always be clear on any flag state requirements first. However, aiding mariners in distress – including migrants – must not put the vessel, crew or passengers in any type of danger.

Even experienced law enforcement, military and aid groups struggle to deal effectively with migrant vessels. Many governments won’t allow vessels with migrants into their ports without prior authorization, if at all.

First and foremost, you should have some type of plan to deal with migrant situations if your vessel cruises in waters prone to migrant activity. As part of that plan, make sure to ask some basic questions. First, does my vessel have the capability to deal with the number of people in distress before additional assistance arrives? Next, what type of training and background do my crew members possess, and have they dealt with this situation before? Finally, who are the potential response agencies and how long will it take them to arrive?

The best course of action for most vessels when dealing specifically with migrants at sea is to remain on scene, monitor the situation, and call for immediate coast guard, law enforcement or military assistance.

Corey Ranslem, CEO at International Maritime Security Associates (www.imsa.global), has more than 24 years of combined Coast Guard and maritime industry experience. Comments are welcome below.

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