Some European Union Ministers have expressed concerns that search and rescue operations at sea have acted as a ‘pull factor’ for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue. This has been particularly notable in attempts of immigrants from North Africa crossing the Mediterranean often in very inadequate boats.

Italy, in particular, has been subject to many illegal immigrants arriving in such a manner.

What these Eurpoean ministers fail to see is that the rescue of all persons in distress at sea, including illegal migrants, is an obligation under international maritime law, as well as being a long established humanitarian duty.

It is refreshing to see that the International Chamber of Shipping, the global trade association for commercial ship operators, have stated that whatever may be decided by policy makers in EU Member States, the legal and humanitarian obligation of merchant ships to provide assistance to anyone in distress at sea will remain unchanged.

Merchant ships are legally required to rescue persons in distress at sea by the UN International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), to which virtually every maritime nation is a party.

The shipping industry is therefore very concerned by reports that the new EU Frontex operation ‘Triton’ will have a third of the budget of the current Italian ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation which it replaces, that its primary focus will be border control, and that search and rescue operations may be reduced in international waters.

It will clearly be much more difficult for merchant ships to save lives at sea without the adequate provision of search and rescue services by EU Member States. Moreover, whenever a ship performs its legal and humanitarian obligations, it will continue to be incumbent on EU Member States to ensure that those who are rescued can be readily disembarked at the next port of call, even when they may lack documentation.

Recognizing this problem, member States of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have adopted amendments to two of the relevant international maritime conventions. These aim to ensure that the obligation of the ship master to render assistance is complemented by a corresponding obligation of States to co-operate in rescue situations, thereby relieving the master of the responsibility to care for survivors, and allowing individuals who are rescued at sea in such circumstances to be delivered promptly to a place of safety.

Anyone in distress at sea should be assisted to safety regardless of the European Union’s attitude.

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