United Nations updates and amends rescue at sea conventions for refugees

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has amended Maritime Conventions to facilitate search-and-rescue at sea. In response to several incidents in recent years, as well as updated refugee and asylum-seeker legislation passed and under consideration in several countries this year, UNHCR is attempting to make it easier for ships to perform rescues with fewer political entanglements with regional governments.

UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond outlined the problem in a press conference:

"Every year, an unknown number of people drown in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Caribbean and other waterways around the world, as their vessels capsize. A few lucky ones are rescued by passing ships - for the most part merchant vessels - that heed the moral and legal imperative to assist persons in distress at sea."

"But vessels fulfilling their humanitarian duty have encountered problems as states have occasionally refused to let some migrants and refugees rescued at sea disembark, especially when they lacked proper documentation. This state of affairs put ship-owners and companies in a very difficult situation, even threatening the integrity of the time-honoured humanitarian tradition to assist those in peril at sea."

The Signatory States to the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (the SOLAS Convention), and the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (the SAR Convention) have introduced amendments to those conventions, effective 01 July, 2006 that will help a shipmaster focus on a rescue when such a situation is encountered.

Signatory States agree that they will accept refugees when a ship picks them up so that the ship is not stranded in a location without immediate assistance. Previously, several high-profile incidents resulted in ships attempting normal business that effectively became floating humanitarian holding centres.

Vessels fulfilling their humanitarian duty in waterways around the world have encountered problems as states have occasionally refused to let some migrants and refugees rescued at sea disembark, especially when they lacked proper documentation. This state of affairs put ship-owners and companies in a very difficult situation, even threatening the integrity of the time-honoured humanitarian tradition to assist those in peril at sea.

States, such as Australia and the United States, have taken a number of steps recently to clarify their relevant laws, based upon many recent experiences. Some of the measures are controversial, but many countries have been facing an increase in illegal immigrants and refugees attempting to cross the ocean in unsafe boats. The European Union, especially Spain, Italy and Malta have been experiencing similar problems and are faced with developing humanitarian solutions.

Such countries are now obligated to provide assistance in a timely manner to all ships that encounter and rescue persons found at sea, regardless of other circumstances or political inclination. They are to ensure that ships rescuing persons in distress face minimum disruption in their schedules by arranging disembarkation as soon as reasonably practicable. Shipmasters who have picked up persons in distress at sea are obliged to treat them humanely, within the capabilities of the ship.

UNHCR and the UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) will also issue an information leaflet soon to provide guidance on relevant legal provisions and procedures to shipmasters, ship-owners, government authorities, insurance companies, and other affected parties involved in rescue at sea situations.

"People taking to sea in this way do so for a mixture of reasons," UNHCR's chief spokesman, Ron Redmond, told journalists in Geneva recently. "We have a direct interest in their fate since, even if the majority may be migrants without international protection needs, a certain proportion of those travelling irregularly by sea turn out to be refugees," he added.

How each government or territory handles such refugees after they leave the ship is still up to each legislative body and the people it represents.

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