Rescue At Sea – Seafarers’ Dilemma

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It is a deep rooted tradition of the seafarers to rescue anyone in peril on the high seas. In June 2006, a Dutch registered passenger ship Noordam belonging to Holland America Line rescued 22 persons of various nationalities after their boat capsized in the Aegean Sea between the Greek island of Samos and the coast of Turkey. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) praised the crew of the ship for this humanitarian gesture. In September 2005 a Danish registered ship Eli Maersk rescued 30 people after their ship wrecked in the Gulf of Eden. Another ship MV Clementine Maersk rescued 27 stranded boat people in the Mediterranean Sea in May 2005. The Norwegian freighter MV Tampa rescued 433 asylum seekers from a sinking fishing boat off the Australian coast, in 2001. These are operations that have been prominently reported but the saga of rescue at sea dates back to the day man took to sea for a livelihood or fun.

The humanitarian instincts of seafarers to save human beings from sea, risking their own lives in a potentially dangerous operation have also met with pathetic reception. In 2004, the Captain of the German ship MV Cap Anamur was briefly jailed by the Italian authorities after he caused the rescue of 37 Sudanese refugees found rifting in the Mediterranean sea. In October 2004, a German owned container ship MV Lydia Oldendorff was held for a week off the coast of Malta for a week, when two stowaways were found hiding in a container. The ship was allowed to enter Valletta, its next port of call, for unloading cargo, but the asylum seekers were not allowed ashore. In the melee, the ship owner suffered financial loss due to delayed cargo delivery, conditions onboard worsened and the crew suffered a moral setback.

People from less developed countries mostly take the sea route to migrate for a better living across the seas. There are others who are frustrated with the political system or governance and try to flee out of pressure. In fact, many developed nations of the present day are the creation of such migrants. The migrants or asylum seekers take the plight on un-seaworthy ships and without proper navigational equipments or able seafarers. But pirates are very good at stage managing a boat capsize to attract passing merchant ships and launch a quick boarding on the ship that reaches for rescue. In this present day world, horrified by terrorists, governments of nations are very cautious about stowaways in containers or asylum seekers landing on their shores. It has come to such a stage that few governments have forbidden their merchant ships to allow any migrants onboard unless the situation is deemed to be one of life or death. Apparently, merchant ships are under instructions to report the matter to the Coast Guard and sail ahead. The Somali asylum seekers who were rescued by MV Clementine Maersk reported that they drifted on the Mediterranean Sea for a week. Several ships that passed them either ignored them altogether or promised to summon help which never materialized.

With today’s ever increasing emphasis on swift deliveries and fast turnarounds, seafarers’ humanitarian instincts are on the anvil of ship owners or charterers. The greater pressure will be on the ship’s Captain’s mind that he may face serious consequences in ordering a deviation of course for rescue and loss of time incurred on that count. Is it the end of the age old tradition of seafarers’ humanitarian act of rescue of life at sea?

To heave a sigh, this tradition has become more than just a moral obligation and is now enshrined in international law. On 1 July 2006, amendments to the SOLAS and SAR Conventions concerning the treatment of persons rescued at sea entered into force. The salient features of the amendments are as follows:-

  • “the amendments mandate co-ordination and co-operation between States to assist the ship’s master in delivering persons rescued at sea to a place of safety.”
  • “the owner, the charterer, the company operating the ship, or any other person shall not prevent or restrict the master of the ship from taking or executing any decision which, in the master’s professional judgement, is necessary for safety of life at sea and protection of the marine environment.”
  • “the obligation of the master to render assistance should be complemented by the corresponding obligation of IMO Member Governments to co-ordinate and co- operate in relieving the master of the responsibility to provide follow up care of survivors and to deliver the persons rescued at sea promptly to a place of safety.”

Let any number of fishermen venture into the sea, the sea god has preserved enough for everyone. There is enough to eat on this earth and everyone has a right to live. A UN notification informs that to help shipmasters, shipowners, government authorities, insurance companies, and other interested parties involved in rescue at sea situations, UNHCR and the IMO will soon issue an information leaflet that will provide guidance on relevant legal provisions and procedures. Hopefully, the humanitarian instincts of seafarers will survive!!

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