Rescuing boat people

Hundreds of refugees drown each year in the waters of the Mediterranean in their effort to reach the shores of the safer and more prosperous European nations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) said in Athens yesterday. At the same time, reluctance by national governments to allow migrants and asylum seekers on their territory is putting off merchant sea captains from responding to rescue calls, officials from the two organizations said at the end of a two-day expert meeting on interception and rescue in the Mediterranean Sea. Officials stressed that better cooperation is needed from national governments, calling on transit states to take some of the burden off the ship masters by giving migrants the green light to disembark on their territory. «We don’t want the ship master to be in that sort of situation where he is relinquishing years and years of humanitarian tradition,» said Vincent Cochetel, deputy director of the UNHCR’s department of international protection, noting captains are increasingly «turning a blind eye.» The UN official, however, acknowledged the political limitations of the recommendations to captains. «It’s not for [sea masters] to work out a political solution. Humanitarian assistance to people in distress at sea cannot be a substitute for political solutions,» Cochetel told the press conference. The debate over rescue-at-sea operations, their commercial consequences, and governments’ obligations was catapulted onto center stage in 2001 when MV Tampa, a Norwegian vessel that had rescued some 430 Afghans, was denied entry into Australian territorial waters. The captain defied the ban as the desperate human cargo was in dire need of medical treatment. The crisis came to a climax when a squad of SAS troops stormed the boat to prevent refugees from landing on Australian territory. The hardline response of the Australian authorities triggered an outcry from human rights organizations. In response to new challenges, the IMO has undertaken significant revision of maritime law, including the Convention on Search and Rescue (SAR) and the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Captain Graham Mapplebeck, head of the Operational Safety Section at the IMO’s Maritime Safety Division, said that the aim of the amendments is to ensure that sea captains go to the aid of those in distress at sea. For the first time, Mapplebeck stressed, legal changes will place obligations on contracting states to cooperate with sea masters so that survivors are disembarked in a place of safety. The amendments are expected to come into force on July 1, 2006. Thousands of people crowd into rickety boats and rafts each year in an attempt to cross the stretch of water between northern Africa and southern European states such as Italy, Spain and Greece. Migrants from Mideast countries also try to make their way into Greece from the eastern sea border. Tighter security controls have lured unscrupulous smugglers, who often leave migrants stranded at sea. The UNHCR has warned that the growing number of interceptions and human tragedies has taken on the dimensions of a «humanitarian crisis.» Eleven African would-be-migrants were found dead on the beach and in the sea off Sicily’s south coast on Sunday. Coast guards rescued 140 migrants who reportedly set off from Libya. Last year, more that 2,000 would-be migrants drowned while trying to reach Italy from Libya, Cochetel said. Reality is even gloomier, as many deaths go unreported. The UNHCR official fell short of describing the situation facing Greece as a crisis. He said the number of people arriving illegally in Greece by sea, about 3,000, is «manageable,» adding that contrary to popular conception the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not add to the flow of refugees. One would-be migrant drowned as he tried to get off a sinking trawler near the southern coast of Crete last month. Coast guards, police and volunteers saved another 125 migrants from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Egypt. A second meeting on interception and rescue at sea, focusing on ways to improve regional cooperation and management of migratory movements in the Mediterranean, will take place in Madrid on October 17 and 18. Officials at the conference stressed that the public backlash against foreigners on the continent and concerns about global terrorism threaten to close the door on those who really need protection against persecution in their own countries. Cochetel warned that we should be wary of the many cliches circulating about boat people. «Terrorists don’t have to take these boats,» he said. «Terrorists fly business class.»