Mediterranean Migrant Crisis

While no longer dominating headlines in the same way it did two years ago, the migrant rescue at sea crisis in the Mediterranean is still far from over. Shockingly, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) more than 5,000 migrants lost their lives during 2016 while attempting to make the dangerous sea crossing in overcrowded and unseaworthy craft – the highest loss of life yet. In the same period, according to the UN, over 350,000 migrants entered Europe by sea, most arriving in Italy and Greece. 

The main cause of the very large number of migrant deaths is the smugglers’ murderous practice of sending hundreds of people off to sea at the same time making it extremely difficult for rescuers to save them all.

If 2015 is remembered as the year in which the humanitarian crisis involving over a million refugees and migrants seeking to enter Europe began to spiral out of control, the danger is that 2017 may be remembered as the year in which the crisis became institutionalised. But the concern of ICS and the industry it represents is primarily humanitarian. 



Due to efforts being made by the EU and NATO navies, merchant shipping has not been at the forefront of the crisis in quite the same way it was 18 months ago, when ships were involved in hundreds of rescue operations and the rescue of over 60,000 people. The number of rescue operations in which commercial ships have recently been involved has decreased to some extent due to the increase in resources now being provided by EU Member States and the EU border agency, FRONTEX, through its Triton and Poseidon Sea operations. Search and Rescue (SAR) operations were significantly expanded following emergency Summits of EU leaders in 2015 in response to the shocking loss of life in a series of appalling incidents. 

However, large numbers of merchant ships are still routinely diverted by Rescue Co-ordination Centres to assist in large scale rescue operations, and it has to be remembered that the merchant seafarers involved are civilians, many of whom have been severely affected by the desperate situations which they have had to face. 

Following the agreement in March 2016 between the EU and Turkey, the large flows of migrants focused on eastern Mediterranean routes, especially to Greece via Turkey, have reduced significantly. However, following a temporary respite in the numbers of people attempting to make the sea crossing from North Africa, the central Mediterranean route has become attractive again. The situation has been exacerbated by the lack of central government and ongoing civil conflict in Libya, which has made it possible for criminal gangs of people traffickers to operate with near impunity. Recent reports that EU funded efforts by Libyan Coast Guards to intercept and detain migrants are being undermined by corruption, which then simply increases the profits of the traffickers, are not encouraging. However, the situation remains very fluid. 

Deteriorating relations between Turkey and the EU could mean that the former may no longer continue to accept the return of illegal migrants from the EU, while it is not yet clear whether recent developments in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen will reduce or further increase the numbers of people seeking to escape to Europe from the Middle East. Meanwhile, famine now affecting millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa in early 2017 seems only likely to add to the problem, at a time when EU political leaders are distracted by other issues. 

To their credit, governments such as Italy and Greece have consistently permitted prompt and predictable disembarkation of rescued people from merchant ships. But the crisis now seems to be taking an ever more political direction. Tensions due to concerns about migration have been increasing across Europe. Some senior national politicians have been making statements to the effect that rescued migrants should not be permitted to enter Europe in the first place. 

The real fear is that shipping, at some point in the near future, might face the prospect of prompt disembarkation of rescued persons being refused, as attitudes in Europe towards immigration harden. In the meantime, until the root causes are resolved (war in the Middle East and instability and famine in many parts of Africa) migrants can be expected to attempt to enter Europe by sea in very large numbers. 

ICS has been careful to avoid becoming involved in the general political debate about the migrant crisis. That said, while shipping companies will always meet their humanitarian and legal responsibilities to come to the rescue of anyone in distress at sea, the obligations contained in the IMO SOLAS and SAR Conventions were never intended to address this unprecedented situation.
In co-operation with ECSA, ICS is therefore continuing to argue that EU Member States must maintain adequate SAR resources. In co-operation with IMO, ICS is also continuing to press the United Nations to come forward with a humanitarian solution, however difficult this might be in practice until stable governance is restored to Libya and other nations in the region.


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