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Economic Migrants in Distress at Sea

The sea shall not have them, but who should? The difficulties of dealing with refugees and economic migrants rescued at sea. - A seminar hosted by the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, London, February 2008


The tradition of seafarers rescuing those in distress at sea is an ancient one. Many will remember the assistance afforded to the Vietnamese Boat People during the late 1970s. Since then, the number of desperate people setting out in unseaworthy boats has not diminished. For example, Spanish maritime authorities intercepted some 30,000 economic migrants in 2006 alone. These human tragedies are usually hidden from view with the occasional notorious case such as that of Norwegian-flagged M/V Tampa.

In 2001 the Tampa, with a crew of 27, rescued over 400 Afghan migrants from a distressed fishing boat in international waters. The nearest port was Christmas Island. However the Australian government refused to allow disembarkation leaving the captain to cope with dangerous overcrowding and many rescued people requiring medical treatment. The case led the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to review the legal instruments regarding safety of life at sea.

In February 2008, the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, the professional organisation of seafarers of the United Kingdom, hosted a seminar on this subject. Representatives of seafarers' welfare organisations and international shipping met with experts in maritime law and human rights to discuss the difficulties of dealing with refugees and economic migrants rescued at sea. By considering the position of the seafarers involved, delegates hoped to consider how to ensure that the humanitarian principle of assisting those in distress at sea is upheld.

International law

Article 98 of the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states that ships' masters have a duty to render assistance to persons in distress at sea without endangering their own ship, crew or passengers. The IMO treaty on the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) as amended in 2006 following the Tampa case, reinforces this duty to assist those in distress regardless of their status and circumstances. Governments of IMO member states have a corresponding obligation to deliver persons rescued to safety while ensuring minimum disruption to ships.

Refugees and economic migrants

The legal position of refugees and migrants is defined by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 states that everyone has the right to seek asylum while Article 33 defines the principle of "non-refoulement", i.e. principle in international law of protecting refugees from return to places of danger. While the status of "refugee" is a specific definition, everyone has the right to request asylum for whatever reason. There is therefore no such thing as an "illegal asylum seeker".

The situation for seafarers

Representatives of the Apostleship of the Sea and our ecumenical partners Mission to Seafarers explained the difficulties which crews face when rescuing people at sea. There are practical issues such as a shortage of provisions onboard and risks to health without quarantine facilities or sufficient medical supplies. There is also the psychological impact of taking strangers onboard the ship, which is the seafarers' home, and the sense of insecurity if those rescued outnumber the crew.

There may be commercial pressures. Some masters may fear that if they deviate from their course in order to rescue persons in distress, they will be penalised by shipping companies and not receive further contracts. In addition, seafarers' rights may be threatened when they attempt to disembark rescued persons at the nearest place of safety. In port, they may be denied shore leave, contrary to international law. In extreme cases, crews of ships carrying rescued migrants have been accused of people trafficking.


Anecdotal evidence suggests that some masters are ignoring the fundamental obligation of rendering assistance to those in distress at sea regardless of status or circumstances. This may be due to commercial pressures or the difficulty of landing survivors. The distinction between "refugee", "asylum seeker" and "economic migrant" is not relevant. Ships' masters should not have to make judgements about the status of persons rescued. This is a matter for the authorities in the countries of disembarkation.

Delegates called on international organisations and the shipping industry to maintain the obligation to rescue all who find themselves in distress at sea for whatever reason and on governments specifically to facilitate the disembarkation of persons rescued at sea.

Exemplary seamanship

Delegates heard at first hand the experience of Captain Maxim Sharov, Master of the SCF Tomsk which rescued 42 people in distress in the Atlantic in June 2007. The crew of the Tomsk numbered just 22. Thanks to the co-operation of the shipping company and the port state, the rescued migrants, who were from various African countries, were put safely ashore in Cape Verde.

Conference paid tribute to the seamanship of Captain Sharov. In recognition of his exemplary conduct in discharging the duty of rescuing persons in distress at sea, the Honourable Company of Master Mariners presented a certificate of merit to Captain Sharov.


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