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20th Sep 2021

Shipping industry pleads for EU to save more migrants

  • Commercial vessels helped rescue some 40,000 migrants in the Mediterreanean last year (Photo: kees torn)

Big European ships operating within and near Libyan territorial waters are pleading with the international community to step up rescue efforts in the Mediterranean.

Sturla Henriksen, CEO of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, says merchant vessels are plucking around one in five migrants from the sea.

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“This very much affects us. Neither are the crew trained, nor are these vessels equipped for large-scale search and rescue operations”, he told this website on Monday (6 July).

An estimated 1,200 commercial vessels were involved in search and rescues since the start of 2014. Last year, they saved around 40,000 people.

The ships are now seeing a spike in the numbers of people they rescue when compared to the same period last year. In 2014, 883 ships were diverted to rescue migrants. Around 300 were diverted since the start of this year.

Henriksen said the vessels would continue to rescue people because it is a moral and legal obligation. But he noted the EU had for “much too long” turned its back on the Mediterranean, leaving rescues up to Italy and merchant shipping.

The EU earlier this year expanded its multi-national flotilla Triton mission to help save lives. It then proposed plans, including the relocation of asylum seekers and resettlement of refugees, after several hundred migrants drowned in April.

This was followed by a naval operation to undermine “the business model of smugglers”.

The Norwegian association, for its part, has at any given moment between 10 to 30 vessels in areas between Libya, Tunisia, Malta, and Italy. This includes Libyan territorial waters, where one of its boats saved almost 2,000 people in 16 separate operations.

Some of the vessels have faced off with armed smugglers, but Henriksen ruled out placing armed private security details on the ships.

However, further instability in Libya and threats issued by its internationally recognised government that it would sink any EU military boats inside its waters are leading to fears of even more tensions.

In June, the Libyan air force commander, Saqr Al-Jaroushi, told Reuters that "any vessel found in Libyan waters without previous co-operation or permission will be targeted by the air force”.

Meanwhile, the shipping industry wants more boats and planes to help with the EU-led Triton mission when it comes to search and rescue.

Patrick Verhoeven, secretary general of the European Community Shipowners’ Associations in Brussels, for his part, pointed to other problems.

“If the vessel is diverted to Malta but these people want to go to Italy, they might turn against the crew”, he said.

The commission, for its part, says over 44,000 migrants were detected trying to cross the Mediterranean from the start of May until the end of June.

Of those, some 33,855 were saved.

“There were only two confirmed cases of death in this period, so this is quite a change”, said Mattias Ruete, a senior European commission official.

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