The International Maritime Organization is to review legislation underpinning sea rescues by commercial shipping as a “matter of priority” in the light of mass rescues of migrants and refugees being conducted in the Mediterranean Sea.
At the 102nd meeting of the Legal Committee this week, a report on the UN inter-agency meeting held at the IMO in March was submitted. It found that new safety issues are raised by large-scale rescues. The report said: “Search and rescue systems maintained by the shipping community [are] not designed for rescuing hundreds of thousands of people drifting on small, unseaworthy boats left in shipping lanes.”
Between now and the next Legal Committee meeting in June 2016, Malta and Italy, supported by Denmark, will co-ordinate a discussion group, likely to be an “email type group”, which will run until – and be discussed at – the next session of the Committee (LEG 103), the IMO secretariat told IHS Maritime.
An IMO spokesperson said: “The idea is to provide a forum to discuss some of the issues raised by delegations to LEG 102. As this is the Legal Committee, they might focus on legal aspects, such as the current legal regime, for example, SOLAS and SAR.”
The report called for “urgent action” on the “complex issue of mixed migration by sea” , for “gaps” to be identified and addressed, and for a review of the relevant international legal regime by the Legal Committee, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), the Facilitation Committee, and the Council.
In his closing speech to the Legal Committee, IMO secretary-general Koji Sekimizu said “the situation in the Mediterranean regarding the number of people in desperate need of rescue at sea is unprecedented in modern times and the principles and provisions of the SAR Convention were never designed for this kind of mass rescue operation. Member States agreeing to coordinate such intersessional work is not only timely but also most urgent.”
He confirmed that the matter will be discussed at the MSC and also at Council. He said: “I hope that Council will wrap up the discussion on the way forward in order for this Organization to take action to deal with this matter and potentially present the outcome to the Assembly.
“A way forward depends on the actual rescue operations and how international shipping will be involved but we will monitor the action to be taken by Member States, in particular European Member States.”
Speaking to IHS Maritime, Jason Zuidama of the North American Maritime Ministry Association said that the shipping community was exasperated with the current situation. He said that the perception of the shipping industry is that the “beautiful tradition” of ships coming to the aid of a distressed vessel is being abused by people smugglers, who, he said, are using ship tracking technology to target ‘rescue’ ships for their people cargoes.
He said that the safety of crews and ships participating in mass rescues is under threat. Raising the issue of fatigue, he said that crews involved in large scale rescues are unable to rest properly, posing a health and safety risk to themselves and the ship. During mass rescues, seafarers lose out on sleep as they have to stand guard over the rescued people, as well as tend to them.
He asked: “What kind of reward or recognition are the seafarers getting for this? Are they getting bonuses? Right now, they seem only to be ‘getting’ exhaustion.”
Zuidama said that a review of the legislation would be welcome but raised the question of what the implications of a change would be for the rescue of ships carrying large numbers of people, such as ferries or cruise ships.