The Malta Independent 23 July 2019, Tuesday

Ship takeover by migrants raises concerns for rescues at sea

Associated Press Sunday, 31 March 2019, 09:00 Last update: about 5 months ago

A rescue in the Mediterranean Sea that took an ominous turn has raised concerns that the captains of some merchant ships might become reluctant to save migrants in danger of drowning during the perilous crossing from north Africa to Europe, fearing that they could lose control of their ship.

A cargo ship heading from Turkey to Libya was asked to divert its course to rescue nearly 100 migrants in distress, which it did, before continuing on its course. But when the migrants realised, on Wednesday, that they were heading back to lawless Libya, which they had just left, some revolted, commandeering the ship and forcing it to head for Europe.

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The temporary hijacking this week of the El Hiblu 1 was described by Italy's hard-line Interior Minister as an 'act of piracy'. Aid groups called it an 'act of self-defence' against Europe's inhumane immigration policies, the aim of which is to return desperate migrants to Libya, where they often face beatings, rape and torture in detention camps.

Five migrants were arrested after Maltese Special Forces boarded the ship on Thursday and escorted it to port.

The ship's captain said that the Maltese authorities had detained and strip-searched him after the ship docked in Valletta.

"I swear in the name of God, if I find a million people dying in front of me in the sea, I will never rescue them after what I saw here in Malta,"  Nader el Hiblu told The Associated Press by phone from the ship on Friday. "This filthy country treated me in a very disrespectable way after rescuing 98 people. They dealt with me as a criminal and accused me of illegal migration."

But the captain's perhaps understandable anger notwithstanding, the crews of all boats and ships are legally required to rescue anyone in distress at sea. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that captains must "render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost" as long as they can do so without "serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers".

The risk of hijackings in the Mediterranean has been of increasing concern to the shipping world in recent years, particularly since some European countries began refusing to allow ships with rescued passengers into their ports, according to industry specialists.

"We knew it was coming, we have sounded warnings about this frequently", John Stawpert, Environment and Trade Manager at the London-based International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), told the AP. "This episode has, I think, brought it into sharp focus. What we need is action at a high level - at state level and also international level - to ensure that ships that find themselves in this sort of situation, through no fault of their own, get immediate assistance."

Cargo ships and their crews are not equipped to deal with large numbers of desperate people suddenly arriving on board. The ICS has called for the coast guards of nearby countries to intervene as quickly as possible in such situations to transfer rescued migrants to safe locations.

Despite the risks, Stawpert said it was unlikely that commercial ships would start to regularly refuse help to those in distress.

The number of people making the perilous journey from North Africa across the Mediterranean to Europe has fallen steeply in recent years, he noted, and many are being caught by the Libyan coastguard before they get far from the Libyan coast.

"Most importantly, seafarers recognise their legal and moral obligation to carry out a search and rescue. It's a very deeply ingrained moral obligation and culture within shipping," he said, "and I'm confident that people will continue to pick up people in distress."


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