UN refugee agency backs new steps to rescue migrants in peril at sea

30 June 2006

With thousands of men, women and children crammed on rusty unseaworthy boats braving the waves, and often facing death, each year in search of work, better living conditions or protection against persecution, the United Nations refugee agency today pledged support for new regulations to reinforce rescue mechanisms.

The amendments to the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), coming into force tomorrow, oblige states to let those rescued disembark, thus relieving ships of the responsibility of caring for them and ensuring that those in peril are not therefore ignored.

“Vessels fulfilling their humanitarian duty have encountered problems as states have occasionally refused to let some migrants and refugees rescued at sea disembark, especially when they lacked proper documentation,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.

“This state of affairs put shipowners and companies in a very difficult situation, even threatening the integrity of the time-honoured humanitarian tradition to assist those in peril at sea,” he said.

UNHCR and the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) will soon issue an information leaflet to provide guidance on relevant legal provisions and procedures to help shipmasters, shipowners, government authorities, insurance companies, and other interested parties involved in rescues at sea.

The amendments aim to ensure that the obligation of the shipmaster to render assistance is complemented by a corresponding obligation of states to co-operate in rescue situations, relieving the master of the responsibility to care for survivors, and allowing individuals who are rescued at sea to be delivered promptly to a place of safety.

In short, they require signatory states and other parties to co-ordinate and co-operate to ensure that ships rescuing persons in distress face minimum disruption in their schedules by arranging disembarkation as soon as reasonably practicable. Shipmasters who have picked up persons in distress are obliged to treat them humanely.

UNHCR has a direct interest in the fate of those taking to sea since, even if the majority may be migrants without international protection needs, a certain proportion turn out to be refugees.

Every year, an unknown number of people drown in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Caribbean and other waterways around the world, as their vessels capsize. A few lucky ones are rescued by passing ships – for the most part merchant vessels – that heed the moral and legal imperative to assist persons in distress at sea.

 

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