Sea-borne migrants and refugees are not a new phenomenon. For many years people around the world have risked their lives aboard un-seaworthy vessels, whether in search of work, better living conditions or international protection against persecution or other threats. But with recent conflict in the Middle East, there are increasing reports of vessels in the Mediterranean put in situations whereby they have to conduct migrant rescue operations.

Adrian McCourt, managing director of Watkins Superyachts, explains that such incidents are increasing, and explains that it is worth superyachts being aware of their duties in such situations. “I have spoken informally to a number of tanker owners who collectively handled over 5,000 refugees in the last four months of 2014 - almost exclusively rescued in the southern Mediterranean,” he explains. “This occasionally makes the international press, but as usual lives in peril at sea are of less interest than oil soaked puffins.

“This has placed considerable financial pressure on coast state authorities in southern Europe, some of whom have helpfully withdrawn patrols and support, leaving seafarers – who have obligations under SOLAS – to render assistance. Modern communications mean persons in distress can usually be located fairly promptly, but prompt post-rescue disembarkation may be delayed if the captain is not prepared.”

As a result, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), in partnership with UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, has issued a guide for those at sea who may be called upon to assist refugees or migrants, which can be found here.

The guide explains that the captain “has an obligation to render assistance to those in distress at sea without regard to their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they are found”. This is a longstanding maritime tradition as well as an obligation enshrined in international law. Compliance with this obligation is essential to preserve the integrity of maritime search and rescue services. It also outlines procedures to define action that needs to be taken by the various parties involved in rescue at sea.

McCourt advises that, for those on board Watkins' managed boats, captains are being reminded of their obligations to render assistance under the 1974 SOLAS Convention; that their overriding authority in this matter and to make contact with the company at the earliest opportunity, but not to delay in assisting by doing so.

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