Shipping Policy

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2016 saw another rise in the number of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, with arrivals of migrants by sea amounting to 363,40113. In the Central Mediterranean Sea, 14,000 persons were rescued by merchant ships, which represent 8% of the total number of people rescued, a slight drop in comparison to the 2015 figure (which was 11% of the total). The agreement between EU and Turkey brought a drastic reduction in the numbers of migrants arriving in Greece, from 10,000 per day at the end of 2015 to a few dozen per day in the second semester of 2016. However, there are worrying signs that migrant flows towards Greece have grown again rapidly as of the first quarter of 2017.

With regard to Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea, although there has also been a drop in the number of merchant ships that were diverted and involved in rescue (121 ships in 2016 vis-à-vis 141 ships in 2015), the situation remains serious. There are still concerns about several issues related to the safety of the crew, cargo and migrants on board, as well as compensation issues in cases of accidents, deaths, maritime pollution, disease and the obstacles to the safe disembarkation of migrants.

Shipping, bound by maritime tradition, has the moral duty and legal obligation to assist any person in distress at sea. However, it must be stressed that merchant ships are neither built nor equipped, and seafarers are not trained for large-scale SAR operations. The ships’ crews, genuinely assisting persons in distress at sea, should not risk being punished for providing such assistance and furthermore be exposed to security risks, health risks, tensions, physical and psychological strain.

Merchant shipping cannot provide an option for member states and the EU in fulfilling their obligations in terms of the search and rescue dimension of the migrant crisis.

On the other hand, the coastal states should always respect their commitments and legal obligations and permit the smooth and swift disembarkation of migrants after a safe operation. SAR operations are the primary and undisputed responsibility of government authorities. The merchant fleet can and will assist when the need arises but cannot be an intrinsic part of the migration crisis management set-up in the Mediterranean Sea.

Given the significant challenges SAR operations pose to the safety and security of crews and ships, as well as of migrants, the situation in the Mediterranean Sea should continue to be monitored closely and SAR resources should be adapted to new circumstances and routes to avoid an over-reliance on the merchant fleet.

(13)International Organization for Migration, Mixed Migration Flows in the Mediterranean and Beyond, Compilation of available data and information, Reporting Period 2016