SAR Crisis in the Mediterranean - Commercial Vessels Rescue Thousands
The humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea is spiralling out of control.
In March 2015 search and rescue organisations, coast guards, humanitarian agencies and The Pope clearly stated that there is a risk of further catastrophic losses of life as more desperate people attempt this dangerous sea crossing.
Unfortunately they were all 100% correct...
On Monday 20 April 2015 UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres expressed his shock at the latest boat capsizing in the Mediterranean, and the hundreds of lives reported to have been lost.
According to UNHCR the 20 metre (70 foot) boat overturned in Libyan waters during the night of Saturday 18 April.
The boat sank some 130 miles (210km) off the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Italian and Maltese naval vessels and merchant ships were among approximately twenty vessels and several helicopters that engaged in the rescue operation co-ordinated by the Italian authorities.
According to the Maltese authorities only around 50 of the 700 people reported to be aboard had been rescued.
Should these numbers be confirmed, the incident will be the largest loss of life from any incident involving migrants on the Mediterranean.
This incident increases the total number who have died on boats to
around 1500 people dead in the Mediterranean Sea since January 2015
According to Reuters News, on Monday 13 April 2015 hundreds of people desperate to be rescued from a packed migrant boat in the Mediterranean pushed to one side when they saw a ship approach, capsizing the craft.
Accounts from survivors suggest that over 500 people were on the boat when it sank 75 miles (120 km) off the Italian island of Lampedusa. With 145 people rescued that leaves 350 unaccounted for.
Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said, ‘According to testimonies, at least one-third of the passengers were women and children. At the time of the shipwreck, they were staying in the hull of the boat to be better protected from the cold. When the men on deck became restless and started moving about, because a rescue boat was beginning to approach them, the boat capsized and water flooded the hull. Women and children died immediately.’
Thousands of people lost their lives during 2014 while attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa. The UNHCR – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated, ‘At least 218,000 people, including migrants and refugees, crossed the Mediterranean by irregular routes in 2014 and this trend is expected to continue in 2015.'
218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean by irregular routes in 2014.
3,500 boat people lost their lives trying to cross to Europe in 2014.
That is approximately one in every 60 people.
EU Member States must act urgently to prevent the loss of thousands more lives, as hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees seek to escape to Europe in boats that are unfit for purpose and which are largely operated by people smugglers.
This is the key message which the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the principal global trade association for ship operators, delivered to a United Nations inter-agency meeting on the crisis, hosted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London on 4 March 2015.
Merchant ships rescued 40,000 people in 2014.
This number is predicted to increase dramatically in 2015.
As the political situation in Africa and the Middle East deteriorates.
Merchant Ships Have Undertaken Large Scale Rescues
ICS says that the burden of responsibility placed on ships and their crews to rescue migrants in distress has been further increased by the replacement of Italy’s humanitarian ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation with the EU funded ‘Triton’ operation, whose primary mandate is border protection and which operates with very limited resources.
The shipping industry’s concern is that, following the end of Mare Nostrum, other governments are increasingly relying on merchant ships to undertake more and more large-scale rescues. ICS says it is also concerned by the more recent phenomenon of ships full of migrants being left to navigate in congested waters without qualified persons in charge, presenting a danger to seafarers in other ships as well as the migrants themselves.
Search & Rescue by Coastal States
Coastal States have Search and Rescue (SAR) obligations under international law but as the situation gets worse, ICS believes that unless concerted action is taken to prevent criminals from using unsafe craft to transport migrants there must be a massive increase in State funded resources for SAR operations to meet the growing need in the Mediterranean. In practice, says ICS, this means that other EU Member States need to share the burden in order to help prevent thousands more deaths.
The international shipping industry fully accepts its legal obligations to come to the assistance of anyone in distress at sea. However, some ships have had to rescue as many as 500 people at a time, with serious implications for the welfare of ships’ crews given the health and security issues involved in dealing with such large numbers.
EU Member States Search and Rescue (SAR)
While far more needs to be done to prevent the boats used by people smugglers from being able to depart in the first place, the lawless situation in nations such as Libya and Syria makes this very difficult. ICS therefore believes there is an urgent need for European States and the international community to develop a political solution.
In the short term, however, ICS insists that EU Member States need to do far more to support the Italian Search and Rescue operation, as well as nations such as Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Turkey which are also on the front line of this problem. The very large number of rescues being conducted by merchant ships is a situation which ICS says is becoming increasingly untenable. ICS has published new Guidance on Large Scale Rescue Operations at Sea, which can be downloaded free of charge via the ICS website.
The International Maritime Rescue Federation & SAR
In 2014 merchant ships were tasked 882 times to rescue migrants. According to UK based International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) this pressure on merchant vessels is unsustainable. Coastal States, and States responsible for search and rescue in the regions where the rescues takes place, must do much more to help.
The IMRF said the SAR community had major concerns considering that the number needed to be rescued in this year is expected to escalate to 400,000. Funding of SAR services is reducing, meaning merchant ships had to save 42,000 people during 254 rescues. Already this year 7500 people have been rescued.
Following the United Nations inter-agency meeting on the crisis, hosted by the IMO in London on 4th March, IMRF CEO Bruce Reid said, ‘This was never the purpose of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) agreement and is of major concern to all our members. We fully appreciate the difficulties of the shipping industry in this matter. Ships’ masters are required, by international maritime agreements and regulations, to rescue people in distress if they can. It does not – and must not – matter who those people are or where they have come from. That is the law and tradition of the sea, and we must ensure that it is maintained, for there are many circumstances in which only ships in the area will be able to carry out a rescue. Yet here we have a situation in which people are deliberately being placed in a position of distress, to trigger a rescue response. This obviously places ships’ masters in an invidious position. The IMRF supports our colleagues in the shipping industry in their call for these issues to be properly addressed.’
Mediterranean SAR Operation seeks Crowdfunding to Save Lives
As part of a rapid response to the situation in the Med an independent Search and Rescue operation MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) has been created with private funds to assist naval, commercial and private mariners to carry out rescue and life saving at sea.
The Migrant Offshore Aid Station is a registered Foundation (VO/0939) based in Malta. MOAS was founded in 2013 by Christopher Catrambone (from New Orleans, USA) and Regina Catrambone (from Reggio Calabria, Italy) following the loss at sea of hundreds of migrants off the Italian island of Lampedusa. MOAS is headed by Brigadier (Retired) Martin Xuereb, who was Malta's Chief of Defence until 2014. He coordinates a team of seafarers and SAR professionals.
The organisation is dedicated to preventing loss of life at sea by providing assistance, coordination and support to maritime rescue operations. During just 60 days in 2014 MOAS provided life-saving rescue and medical assistance to 3000 people at sea.
MOAS have no political affiliation or agenda other than the professional saving of lives at sea. Their mantra is ‘no one deserves to die at sea’. MOAS is a NGO (Non Government Organisation) funded by donations. Contributions show that many private individuals and organisations want to be part of the solution to the humanitarian crisis in the Med. Depending on the level of public donations MOAS plans to spend six months at sea in 2015.
MOAS is equipped with a 40 metre (130 feet) vessel 'Phoenix', two Remote Piloted Aircraft (Schiebel camcopters) and two RHIBs, plus an experienced team of rescuers and paramedics. MOAS supports search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean Sea by locating vessels in distress. First the appropriate official Rescue Coordination Centre is informed, MOAS then assists as directed or as required by the situation.
All seafarers transiting the Mediterranean will be affected by the numbers of refugees crossing from Libya to Italy. Christopher Catrambone said, ‘due to the sheer number of migrant boats and the lack of EU assets to intercept them, commercial vessels have become the first line of defence in rescues. But cargo ships and private sailors are unprepared for this kind of overwhelming emergency situation.’
Catrambone continued, ‘They do not have medical personnel so they are unfamiliar on how to take care of the people involved. And this is a big part of the process, not only rescuing them but taking care of them after they’ve been rescued which can be critical to their lives, as we’ve learned in Lampedusa.
300 Migrants Drowned and more Died of Hypothermia in February
MOAS has launched an urgent appeal for funds following the February 2015 tragedies in which 300 migrants drowned and more died of hypothermia after being rescued in the Mediterranean between North Africa and Southern Italy.
According to reports, in February 2015 three rubber dinghies crammed beyond capacity by smugglers with hundreds of migrants left Libya. The first responder was a small tug boat which waited some two hours for naval help from Operation Triton, by which time many were already dead or dying. After around 100 people were rescued, at least 29 died from hypothermia on their way to the island of Lampedusa.
Brigadier Xuereb said, ‘the weather was cold, the sea was rough, there was wind chill and it had rained. It is also very likely that these people had been out at sea already for a considerable amount of time. Hypothermia will have kicked in very fast under these conditions when people were exposed without any cover.’
High Technology and Preventing Loss of Life at Sea
During May to October 2015, MOAS intends to position the vessel ‘Phoenix’ in major migrant shipping lanes. Using Remote Piloted Aircraft with sonar, thermal, and night imaging the crew will monitor the area to locate migrant vessels in distress. The appropriate Rescue Coordination Centre will then be informed.
The MOAS crew will then assess the migrants’ needs using two RHIBs stocked with water, non-perishable food, life jackets, blankets and medical supplies. If they encounter someone who needs urgent medical care, or a vessel in danger of sinking, they will stabilize the person or vessel until public authorities arrive and better care becomes available.
MOAS consists of international humanitarians, security professionals, medical staff, and experienced maritime officers who have come together to help prevent further catastrophes at sea. They are passionate about the plight of those seeking a better life, despite the dangers they face at sea.
MOAS acts as an aid station to support vessels in need of assistance, coordinating its efforts with other search and rescue authorities around the Mediterranean. The ultimate aim is to mitigate loss of life at sea. It will not act as a migrant ferry and it will not rescue migrants exclusively, but it will use all its resources to assist appropriate official Rescue Coordination Centres to locate and help reduce the suffering of human beings and save lives where possible.
Separating Politics from Search and Rescue
MOAS operates in full compliance with relevant EU law, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and relevant international law. Brigadier Xuereb said, ‘What we would like as a foundation is for this to be a realisation, for politicians and the EU to put search and rescue at the top of their agenda and really come to terms with the fact that this is a crisis. We need to have more assets out there to save and render assistance to people in distress.’
Brigadier Xuereb added, ‘I think it’s very important to remove the politics out of search-and-rescue and try and see the issue from the perspective of those people who feel compelled to do the crossing. Last year we saved family units and pensioners who would never have left their homes unless they really had to. People leave because the push factors are so great.’
Christopher Catrambone concluded, ‘If migrants are out there, taking these journeys in this degree of weather, they are extremely desperate. If they had any ability to stay, they would have stayed until there was better weather, but they have taken this perilous journey irrespective of the weather conditions.’
The Mariners Perspective
From the mariner’s perspective there are basic survival and humanitarian issues at sea level. There clearly are significant political and regional security viewpoints that also need to be considered. There are parallels with maritime piracy, where many different views from land are relevant, but at the end of the day action has to be taken by captains and their crews at sea.
Any mariner transiting the Mediterranean in any size of vessel including tankers, cruise ships, super yachts and even small private boats could get caught up in this situation. Rapid response is essential to rescue people at sea and captains will be faced with hard decisions. They are going to have to consider whether they take people onboard or stand by to wait for professional rescuers, while still maintaining the safety of their crew, plus the security of their vessel and cargo. Mariners will need a clear course of action in their standard operating procedures and a clearly defined SAR, coast guard or naval contact for assistance in each sea area of The Mediterranean.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has stated, ‘The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seaways in the world, as well as a dangerous sea frontier for migrants and asylum seekers en route to Europe. In view of the perils UNHCR again calls on all vessels at sea to be on alert for migrants and refugees in need of rescue. We also renew our call to all shipmasters in the Mediterranean to remain vigilant and to carry out their duty of rescuing vessels in distress.’
By John Haynes AFNI
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