The rescue of persons in distress at sea is both a moral and lawful obligation which has been followed by the maritime industry without question for hundreds of years.
However, this fundamental obligation to assist distressed vessels has put commercial shipping in the Mediterranean under intense pressure in recent years. Political, economic and social hardship in the Middle East and North Africa has forced millions to flee their countries, with passage across the Mediterranean usually the only option, often in overcrowded and unseaworthy boats. In 2013 around 60,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean and in 2014 the number of crossings almost tripled with 170,000 making the journey (Source: UNHCR).
As a consequence of such high numbers, during 2014 alone, around 800 vessels were forced to divert in order to rescue refugees attempting a clandestine crossing across a relatively dangerous stretch of water. However, successfully rescuing migrants is only part of the problem. Maintaining calm onboard, providing food water and shelter, to sometimes hundreds of people, is a huge challenge for any crew. Successfully disembarking such numbers of refugees, often at small Mediterranean ports, can also raise difficulties if public and political sentiment towards asylum seekers is low.
There was previously some respite for the shipping industry during the running of “Mare Nostrum”, a search and rescue operation led by the Italian Navy dedicated to picking up migrants in the Med. However critics of the operation argued that it actually encouraged people to make the journey, knowing there was a greater chance of rescue if something went wrong. Subsequently naval support has now been scaled back to a far more limited operation called “Triton”, with a third of the response capacity of its predecessor operation.
This leaves the shipping industry to bear the logistical burden of a situation which continues to worsen and seafarers to bear the emotional burden of trying their best to assist under the most difficult of circumstances.
It is rewarding, however, to see the media responding positively to the significant efforts made by ships masters and crew, who are going to great lengths to provide all necessary humanitarian support when faced with such situations.
In one recent case a ships Master, was contacted by the Coast Guard and instructed to pick up 510 migrants in a precarious situation.
He duly sailed to assist, however once on the scene the migrants resisted all efforts to bring them aboard and were instead determined to get to Italy. It took several attempts for the Captain to persuade those in need of rescue to come on board, at a considerable safety risk due to the darkness that was falling.
He knew, that with weather conditions deteriorating, the packed vessel would not remain afloat for long. He therefore continued to convince them to accept assistance, eventually succeeding and securing the safety of all 510 people.
The Captain was recognized with an award and the media praised his efforts and exemplary conduct.
His heroic activity, along with the activity of many more ships sea, serves as a commendable example of the industries adherence to its humanitarian responsibilities.