A United Nations summit on refugees and migrants has heard a special tribute to the Merchant Navy's vital role and risks to seafarers in rescuing survivors during dangerous sea migrations.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) special advisor on maritime security and facilitation Chris Trelawny told a round table meeting at the UN summit, that: 'IMO member states recognise that using the search and rescue systems enshrined in the SOLAS and SAR conventions to respond to mass mixed migration was neither foreseen nor intended.
'Although governments and the merchant shipping industry would continue to carry out rescue operations, safe, legal, alternative pathways to migration must be developed, including safe, organised migration by sea if necessary.'
Mr Trelawny asked the meeting on 19 September 2016 to record 'the thanks of the IMO membership to the search and rescue authorities, navies and coastguards, as well as to the masters of the hundreds of merchant ships diverted from going about their lawful occasions to rescue mixed migrants, with attendant risks to the seafarers concerned.'
IMO also highlighted three short films it has produced examining the issues on migration at sea, including insights into what it is like for seafarers to take survivors onboard. The videos explore the perspectives of the migrants, the seafarers who rescue them and the international response.
The IMO has a number of treaties with provisions relating to migration by sea. These include SOLAS chapter V on Safety of Navigation, which requires 'the master of a ship at sea able to provide assistance to persons that are in distress at sea; to do so regardless of the nationality or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found'.
Guidance on the legal framework for rescue at sea has been also been prepared by IMO, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), and UNHCR.
One film from the rescuer perspective points out however, that while the 'international law reinforces the age old tradition that seafarers will always try and rescue people from the sea,' this obligation is now 'nearing breaking point'. This is because, despite best intentions a 'modern merchant vessel is completely unsuited to carrying large numbers of survivors,' explains the film. 'For the captain finding somewhere to disembark his passengers can be as challenging a task as coping with them during their stay onboard.'
In 2014, nearly 900 merchant ships were diverted by Italian authorities to participate in rescue operations, and of those, 254 took migrants on board — saving the lives of more than 42,000 people.
The UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which refers to a pledge to facilitate 'orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.'