Migrant crisis may pose threats to Med shipping

Aquarius NGO ship entering Valencia. Source: Reuters

The migrant crisis continues in Europe and the shipping industry is getting increasingly worried about it, as merchant ships are obliged to rescue persons in distress at sea but, as we have recently witnessed, these operations now may end up with ports being closed for migrants’ disembarkation.

The recent case is the 1,068 TEU Maersk Line’s feeder vessel Alexander Maersk, which on the way from Al Khoms, Libya to Malta received a request from the Maritime Response Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome to change its course and assist in the rescue operation last Thursday, June 21. Having picked up 113 migrants, the ship was waiting for further instructions from the Italian authorities but the country closed its ports for this type of refugees. It took 5 days to settle the dispute and finally, the ship was allowed to dock at the port of Pozzallo, Sicily, and reached this main Italian port of migrants’ call yesterday morning, June 26.

In this complicated situation and on the eve of the EU summit, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the global trade association for ship operators, is calling on all EU heads of government to urgently address the concerns raised by the Italian Government about the large number of rescued persons arriving in Italy, so that the policy of prompt and predictable disembarkation can be fully maintained.

The European Council will take place on June 28-29 and will focus on the migration, security and defence issues.

“If the policy [of the Italian Government to refuse disembarkation] is extended this would have significant implications for the movement of trade throughout the Mediterranean”, said ICS Secretary General, Peter Hinchliffe.

Under the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, merchant ships are committed to meeting their obligation to come to the rescue of any person in distress at sea. According to ICS, since the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean escalated three years ago, around 100,000 people have been rescued by merchant ships.

Earlier, the European Community Shipowners’ Association (ECSA) also raised concerns about the situation, stressing that cargo vessels are not equipped to have migrants on board for a long period of time and their crews are not trained to carry out large-scale rescue operations.

“It is not acceptable that a merchant vessel, saving migrants on its own or called upon to assist in search and rescue activities, is confronted with this kind of problems,” Martin Dorsman, ECSA Secretary General, said.

The situation has aggravated with the new Italian government coming into office at the beginning of this month. Matteo Salvini, the new Interior Minister, has started by taking firm steps to stop the wave of migrants invading Italy.

Thus, Italy’s new government has closed its ports to charity-operated rescue ships that work in the Mediterranean and the first one turned away was Aquarius with 629 migrants on board, which was subsequently also rejected by Malta and finally accepted by Spain in the port of Valencia on June 17.

Matteo Salvini suggests that instead of transforming Italy “into a refugee camp”, reception and identification centres should be set up in Libya and in other African countries to block migration and prevent their people from taking unnecessary risks by making journey in unseaworthy boats.

Since 2014, more than 600,000 migrants have come ashore in Italy, the highest Mediterranean influx. However, in 2018 Spain has become a new leader in this sad statistics. Up to now, 17,045 migrants have arrived in Spain by sea, mostly from Morocco, since the year start, whereas Italy registered 16,326 and Greece – 13,120.

But Spain has now also taken a stand on the issue by rejecting NGO rescue ship Lifeline with 230 migrants yesterday, arguing that the country cannot be the ‘sea rescue organisation for all of Europe’.

Time to see if Europe can handle the problem as a real union.

Julia Louppova:
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