The Norwegian Shipowners Association has been sounding the alarm in recent weeks, worried that some of its members are facing far too much responsibility for saving the lives of refugees found adrift in the Mediterranean.
As record numbers of refugees escape war-torn Syria or conflicts and poverty in Africa, thousands fall into the hands of human smugglers who set them adrift in substandard boats without adequate food or water. Ships plying the Mediterranean, especially in the waters between Libya and Italy, routinely spot overloaded boats, often broken down, carrying desperate human cargoes.
Maritime rescue tradition
“We pick up everyone from newborn babies to elderly women,” Marius Remøy, chief engineer on board the Norwegian ship Bourbon Orca, told newspaper Aftenposten. He works a vessel that supplies oil platforms off the coast of Libya, and therefore regularly sails in the shipping lanes where refugees are often found.
Remøy said his ship has often assisted the Italian coast guard, which has borne the brunt of the humanitarian drama in the Mediterranean. “Other times we’re the ones who spot the boats full of refugees first,” he told Aftenposten. Maritime law and tradition call for vessels to render assistance, and it’s often a demanding job.
“It’s tough, we never know to expect,” Remøy said. The refugees can be ill, hungry, dehydrated, exhausted, depressed and traumatized. The crew on board the Bourbon Orca can give the refugees water, and food as needed, but can’t be prepared to feed or care for hundreds of people.
“One time we had 480 refugees on board at the same time,” Remøy told Aftenposten. “They had to sit out on deck because we didn’t have room for them all.”
The Italian government is now phasing out its active efforts to assist refugees in recent months, but the refugee stream is not expected to ease. That can put more pressure on commercial vessels to render assistance. More than 2,000 refugees were picked up on one recent weekend alone.
“We’re very concerned about this,” Haakon Svane of the Norwegian Shipowners Association told Aftenposten. “Ships from Norway and other nations mustn’t be alone in these rescue efforts.”
Svane said the shipowners believe the refugee problem will continue, also in the risky winter months at sea. “The reason is that there’s a record number of refugees, the highest numbers since World War II,” he told Aftenposten. “The weather is still allowing small boat traffic, and the conflicts in Africa and the Middle East are so huge that people will continue to flee their misery.
“We want to make sure there’s enough rescue capacity out there,” he added. The shipowners’ association is in constant contact with other such organizations in other other countries and with the International Chamber of Shipping. They also are having meetings with the UN refugee authorities, who in turn are calling for more search and rescue resources from the EU.