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Web alert: rescuing refugees and migrants at sea

News & Insights 13 May 2015

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, over 13,500 people were rescued between the period of 10 April to 17 April 2015 and up to 1600 migrants are feared dead this year alone.

The current unrest in large areas of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, has led to an exponential increase in the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of better opportunities. Such attempts have come with significant tragedy, most noticeably in recent months.  According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, over 13,500 people were rescued between the period of 10 April to 17 April 2015 and up to 1600 migrants are feared dead this year alone. Consequently, the EU has now agreed to triple the funding for border patrol operations in the Mediterranean, following the Triton Operations (border security operations) which was too costly for Italy to run singlehanded, and 15 EU countries have now promised to provide naval assistance for the mission.
As the weather improves, it is likely that there will be a continued movement of migrants across the Mediterranean and members with ships trading in this region need to be prepared in the event their assistance is required for distressed people at sea. 
Obligations under the International Conventions

It is a long established tradition that ships should provide those in peril their assistance and, pursuant to Article 98 of UNCLOS[1], the Master of a commercial ship has a duty to “render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost….. in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers”. This duty is repeated under SOLAS[2] Chapter V Regulation 33 which provides that absent “special circumstances” a ship is “bound to proceed with all speed” to assist persons in distress[3]. Failure to do so can result in a fine or up to two years imprisonment.
A Master is therefore under a general duty to answer a distress call, whether received from a ship directly or via an order from a regional or local authority. 
Steps that master should take in case of emergency situations

The master should always take the following steps into consideration and should always respond in a safe and sensible manner, regardless of the circumstances.

  1. Urgently contact the nearest or responsible maritime authority/coast guard and, if needed, nearby ships who may be able to assist.
  2. Establish a clear plan for the safe rescue of the migrants prior to its commencement. 
  3. Provide such assistance and rescue the distressed people. 
  4. Note the number of people. Specify name, gender, age and nationality.
  5. Identify if any of the rescued people have any special medical needs. 
  6. Maintain open dialogue with the responsible maritime authority/coast guard at all times. Maintain good internal communication among the crew.
  7. Inform all the interested parties, including managers, charterers, as well as the club, of the situation as soon as possible. 
  8. Keep a very careful and detailed record of the entire event (use of photographs, videos and written reports can assist).

Guidelines for members
Given the fact that there is a real possibility ships trading in the Mediterranean will encounter distressed persons at sea or be asked to assist in a search and rescue (SAR) operation, members are also advised to:

  • ensure the crew is fully briefed, well in advance of entering the Mediterranean, of the ship’s emergency plan and procedures set in place to cope with a SAR situation of this nature;
  • keep stores of bottled water, ready food, medicines and nutrition on board the ship in order to meet the demands of an emergency response;
  • consider addressing this situation in advance, when agreeing to charterparties that would include ships trading in the Mediterranean. That includes; addressing the possible costs, expenses and time that may be used should a ship deviate to engage in a SAR operation;
  • ensure saved refugees are not allowed to take any of their personal belongings on board, apart from clothes/blankets, to prevent potentially threatening situations arising. All the refugees/migrants must be searched and any weapons or dangerous objects confiscated;
  • provide crew with gloves and other PPE to avoid the potential spread of any diseases onboard the ship.


If an entered ship encounters distressed people at sea, or is called upon by a competent maritime authority to take part in a SAR operation, it is advised to immediately contact the club, who can liaise with the relevant local correspondent (much will depend on the designated port of disembarkation) and assist the Master and crew to safely disembark the migrants and complete their obligations under SOLAS.
The Standard Club will closely monitor this issue and keep members fully updated on any developments, with further alerts where necessary.

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