23 Points Guide For Merchant Ships To Rescue Migrants At Sea

The migrants’ boat crossing situation in the Mediterranean is grim. With the recent spike in attempted migrant crossings, there is no denying that we have a situation which is slowly but surely getting out of control.

To put things in perspective, let’s look at a disturbing timeline and figures:

Recent Mediterranean migrant disasters (Source Reuters/BBC).

Oct 2013: More than 360 people, mostly Eritreans and Somalis, die as their boat sinks off Lampedusa Island.

Sept 2014: At least 300 migrants drown off Malta when people smugglers ram a boat after its occupants refuse to move to a smaller one. Survivors said it was “mass murder”.

Feb 2015: At least 300 migrants feared drowned as four dinghies get into trouble after leaving Libyan coast in bad weather.

12 April 2015: Some 400 migrants feared drowned after their vessel capsizes off Libya.

19 April 2015: About 650 migrants feared drowned as boat capsizes in Libyan waters south of Lampedusa.

Needless to say, the loss of life and dignity in the above timeline is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis.

We will try to analyse this situation from two angles. From the “Political” and the “Merchant Shipping” perspective.

migration routes
Image Credits : bbc.com

The Political Perspective:

The European Union leaders are torn apart on how to handle this crisis. There is one school of thought in the EU leadership that feels that going out of the way to rescue and rehabilitate the refugees is only going to encourage more people to attempt this dangerous trip. While on the other hand, a significant section of the EU top brass believes that they have an undeniable moral and political duty to do all that they can to protect the human rights, human dignity and the life of all such people, the EU being built on these very principles.

This conflict of opinion in the EU is reminiscent of the Pacific Solution that was implemented by the Australian Government in early 2000s to deal with the “boat people” that crossed over to Australia from mainland Indonesia. The then Australian government had to face severe criticism, both locally and international, when the authorities were ordered to stop the migrant boats from making landfall in Australia. There were cries that the Australian government had blood on their hands when scores of people died when their boats were forcibly made to turn around. To avoid a repeat of such incidents, the Julia Gillard government tweaked this policy and struck a deal with Papa New Guinea to accommodate the boat people while the Australian Government processed the asylum seekers.

World leaders with full assistance from the UN have been scrambling to find a middle ground on this present Mediterranean crisis. While it is certain that simply rescuing and rehabilitating the refugees is going to add fuel to the fire, it is also important to understand that scores of lives are at stake here. EU leaders cannot just sit back and let people perish while hoping that these deaths will in some manner prove to be a deterrent to these people. The ground situation in the countries where most of the asylum seekers come from – Eritrea, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia etc. is so bad that the men and women are willing to risk the crossing at any costs. There are unsubstantiated reports that the refugees are paying upwards of 2000 Euros to various agents to facilitate the crossing.

One major hurdle in finding a solution to this crisis is the present turmoil in Libya. Since the fall of former Libyan warlord Col. Muammar Gaddafi, there hasn’t been a stable government in Libya. The government forces and the rebel militia desperately try to hang on to the territories they loosely control. Border controls are virtually non-existent. The coast guard is uncertain about its role in the present crisis. All this is proving to be a great opportunity for touts to enable the refugee crossing. There are reports that the business is so good for these agents that they have run out of boats and are forcing the refugees to abandon the boats as soon as rescue is in sight so that they can be reclaimed. It is imperative at this stage to find a way to get a stable unity government in place at Tripoli. Until that happens, it is very unlikely that the attempted crossings will stop.

Another short turn solution could be destroying the migrant boats after evacuating the refugees. There won’t be any crossings without boats. This is being currently debated by the EU leadership in Geneva.

The Merchant Shipping Perspective:

On the 12th April 2015 while we were en route to Mellitah, Libya for loading, our vessel – Maersk Prosper received a satellite call from MRCC Rome to proceed to a position off Libya for Search and Rescue of the Migrant boats. Without wasting a minute, the Captain ordered all resources to be deployed for the Search and Rescue of the refugees. After a herculean effort from all onboard for almost 24 hours straight, we managed to rescue 236 refugees and safely embarked them onboard. Several of the refugees were sick and required immediate medical attention. A few of the 56 women onboard were pregnant. There were also children and infants onboard. All crew members deserved a pat on their backs for ensuring that every single refugee on the migrant boat got onboard without any injury or damage to the vessel or her equipment. Moreover the rescue was carried out in the night and not in the best of conditions.

But our job didn’t end there. MRCC Rome instructed the vessel to proceed to Messina, Italy to disembark the refugees. Messina is at the northern tip of the autonomous Italian island of Sicily. It was a good 36 hours from our position. We now had an unprecedented situation on our hands. How could a vessel which is designed to carry a maximum of 32 persons sail with almost 10 times the number? Obviously, in times of Distress situations the Master’s discretion comes into play and he can sail the vessel if he deems it fit. Given the gravity of the situation, the old man decided to comply with MRCC instructions and we got about dealing with the refugee situation.

Since it has now become common for company vessel’s to encounter such refugee rescue situations, we already had a procedure in place for dealing with large number of refugees onboard. In addition, we sought guidance from the International Chamber of Shipping publication “Large Scale Rescue Operations at Sea”.

Here are some of the key points which should be kept in mind when attempting a large scale rescue and subsequently in dealing with the refugees:

1. Briefing: A quick briefing of all crew members is of utmost importance. It would be a good idea to carry out a detailed briefing as soon as the vessel starts getting distress messages on the Navtex and Sat-C. Due to the limited resources of the Coastal authorities, there is a good likelihood that your vessel will be instructed by the MRCC if sailing in nearby waters.

2. All Hands on Deck: Make it clear to all crew members that lives are at stake and that rest hours could be violated. You don’t want grumpy crew members complaining to you about their rest hours when you should be concentrating on saving lives.

3. Rescue Equipment: Keep lifebuoys, messenger lines, heaving lines, shackles, cargo nets etc. ready. It is a good idea to get the Line Throwing Apparatus ready and re-familiarise the deployment procedure. This will come in handy in strong wind conditions. Keep the Personnel Transfer basket ready if your vessel has one.

4. Inform the DPA: The DPA is usually the best person to inform in such cases. He can mobilise other resources if required and also serve as a single point of contact. The Master will be extremely busy during the operation and the non-essential reporting can be taken care of by the DPA. Also, keep the charterers updated on every development. On tankers with a tight laycan, the charterers might need to re work the cargo or laycan. In the end Merchant Ships are commercial vessels and not NGOs and need to get back down to business at the earliest.

5. Prepare for Embarkation: Swing out both gangways and deploy the pilot ladders. While saving time for the eventual embarkation, this will also reassure the refugees that the vessel will definitely come to their rescue. Remember that all refugees will be sea sick and very anxious to get onboard. This small measure will go a long way in ensuring that the migrants don’t start rushing towards one side of the boat out of fear or anxiety.

6. Lock Down: Ensure all stores, enclosed spaces, restricted spaces, cabins, accommodation entrances, lifeboats, boxes, drums, etc. are locked and sealed. Note down the seal numbers to re-tally at a later stage. The same seal number indicates that the space has not been breached. This will save you a lot of time and effort when you carry out a mandatory stowaway search after the refugees have disembarked.

7. Take Pictures: This is very important should there be an unforeseen occurrence during the rescue or at a later stage. It will also come in handy to share with the rest of the fleet and during the crew debriefing. Pictures of who is handling the boat can also help authorities determine the leader of the boat. This person could very well be the ring leader of such operations.

8. Approaching the Boat: Approach the boat keeping her on the leeward side. The last thing you want is the boat to come crashing on to the ship. In a recent incident, a migrant boat collided with the Merchant container vessel King Jacob. Almost 800 lives were lost when the overcrowded boat capsized. There are multiple homicide charges being brought against the migrant boat captain. Although, the Merchant Vessel captain has escaped scrutiny in this case, it could very easily have been him who would have faced the charges. Be courageous but cautious!

Image Credits : Nihar H

9. Use of Rescue Boat: It is a very good idea to pass the messenger lines by the Rescue Boat or lifeboat. While doing so, keep a safe distance and throw a heaving line to make the connection. Do not go too close to the migrant boat. There are bound to be overly adventurous persons on the migrant boat who will try to jump onto the rescue boat.

Remember that the migrant boats are not built by naval architects and have very poor stability. A small bump or a sudden movement of refugees in the boat is enough to capsize the boat. Remember that the boats have almost non-functional engines and as such cannot manoeuvre to aid their rescue in any way. All the hard work has to be done from the ship’s end.

10. Persons in Water: If there are persons in the water, considering launching the liferaft and using it as an embarkation station. Tie it up near the gangway so that persons can board the vessel directly from the liferaft. This is easier said than done and will require some deft seamanship.

migrants at sea
Copyrights 2015 Nihar H.

11. Embarkation: A big question when the boat is alongside is how to embark such a large number of persons onboard. The refugees are not going to be a disciplined lot when you try to embark them. When the opportunity arises, everyone will try to jump on the gangway and get onboard as soon as possible. It is very important for one burly crew member to wear his uniform and appropriate PPE and stand at the bottom of the gangway. The refugees are not usually disciplined but they have a tendency to respect authority. The designated crew member should not allow more than four to five persons to climb up the gangway. Have a person standby to heave up the gangway immediately if things start getting out of control. It is also very important to take additional lashings on the gangway if possible. You may consider embarking the refugees using the pilot ladder but it isn’t a great idea considering the refugees are already exhausted and not in the best frame of mind. Many of them carry infants with them.

12. Frisk the Refugees: This might prove to be one of the single most important actions during the rescue. Although unlikely, there is a good possibility that the refugees might be carrying arms or weapons. It is also possible that some of them might be carrying lighters and cigarettes. Be sure to search the refugees thoroughly prior logging them down. Use of Gloves, Face Masks and Full Body protection is highly recommended while frisking the refugees.

13. Record and Tally: It becomes very difficult to keep a track of a large number of refugees. The ship is a large place with lots of places to wander about. It is impossible to keep a track of each individual constantly. The first point of gangway entry is the best opportunity for you to count and tally the refugees. Count them into three groups of Men, Women and Children. This will be the first question the concerned authorities will ask you after the rescue has been completed.

italy migrants
The Refugees being frisked immediately upon embarkation

14. Care of the Injured and Sick Refugees: Now this could prove to be tricky. It is impossible to know if the refugees are carrying any communicable diseases. Direct contact with the refugees should be avoided at all costs. Provide the injured refugees with antiseptics, cotton wool, bandages etc. but avoid treating the wound yourself. The refugees usually come from countries with a high rate of HIV and other infections. Although, there haven’t been reports of refugees from the Ebola infested countries at yet, it cannot be ruled out. Take every precaution you can. Provide blankets and mattresses to the sick, pregnant women and children. Avoid giving out anything other than basic medicines like Paracetamol at this stage unless advised by Radio Medical.

15. Sanitation Facilities: After having spent a long time on the migrant boat, the refugees will certainly insist on using the toilet. Designate the toilet that is located outside accommodation areas for this purpose. Try and avoid giving access to the refugees to toilet facilities inside the accommodation unless in a medical emergency.

16. Refreshments, Food and Water: The cooks will need to double up on their efforts here. It is certain that most of the refugees will be absolutely famished and thirsty for drinking water. In our experience sandwiches and plain white rice will suffice. One carton of milk can be shared between four persons. Women and children should be afforded additional rations if the vessel can spare this.

Mediterranean Migrant
Providing basics to the Refugees
Mediterranean Migrants
Refreshments Served to the Refugees


17. Refugee Details: The best opportunity to re-tally and log down refugee details is when food is being served. The refugees are usually quite orderly when this is being done. Remember to note down the Name, Age, Sex, Nationality and the Medical Condition of every single refugee. We also photographed every refugee when doing this. This came in very handy for the authorities at the port of disembarkation. This will also serve as evidence that all persons were healthy when onboard.

italy migrants at sea
Crew Members Photographing and Documenting Refugee
migrants rescue
Taking Details

18. Continuous Watches: Very essential given the large number of people and the potential for fights erupting. We had spontaneous fights erupting twice amongst rival groups of refugees. The refugees, although from the same boat, come from different countries, ethnic beliefs, race etc. Also, they are unlikely to have any concept of tanker / ship safety. It is very easy to smuggle in a lighter or a blade which is enough to cause severe damage to vessel property and human life. We had all the deck and engine ratings on continuous 6 on 6 off watches. The presence of vessel’s crew had a controlling effect on the refugees.

Migrants At Sea
Crew keeping a constant eye on the Refugees is of utmost importance

19. Prepare for Disembarkation / Appoint Local Agent: Although the port of refugee disembarkation cannot be construed as a regular port call, it is essential for the Owner’s to appoint an agent. The agent would be required to arrange for Medical Check-up of the Crew and stocking up provisions, fresh water, etc. It might also be essential to arrange for fumigation, deck disinfection etc. A basic medical check-up will go a long way in reassuring the crew that they have not contracted any disease from the refugees.

20. Inform P and I Club, Charterers etc : The master or company will need to inform the local P and I club as well. This is important from the commercial point of view since the eventual cost of diversion will need to be settled at a later date.

21. Hand Over Documents and Pictures to the Authorities: When the vessel arrives at the port of refugee disembarkation, several authorities (Harbour Master, Local Police, Immigration Officials etc.) will board the vessel. There will also be a team of medical professionals to make a preliminary assessment of the medical condition of the refugees. Hand over all details to the authorities. It is best to have the 2nd Officer to prepare a statement of facts with a detailed timeline regarding the rescue. This can be stamped, signed and handed over to the Authorities by the Master. Also, hand over all copies of refugee details taken such as Name, Number, Nationality and Photographs. A few pictures of the boat prior rescue will be useful since it helps the authorities determine who was leading the boat men. Remember to keep all originals onboard.

EU migrants rescue
Italian Authorities carrying out a pre disembarkation Medical Check-up

22. Re-Tally and Stowaway Search: It is important to re-tally the refugees as they are disembarking into the port authority barge. It will serve as a ready reckoner to indicate if any persons are missing. Irrespective of the tally, it is of utmost importance to carry out a thorough search for stowaways or contrabands. The last thing you need after carrying out a successful rescue is to be left with a stowaway or contraband (drugs, arms etc.) onboard.

23. Crew Debrief: Finally, after the vessel has sailed out we carried out a thorough debrief of all crew members. Many doubts were cleared. The Master thanked all the crew members for their tireless efforts. A small pep talk by the Master did a lot to uplift the mood. Several crew members were doubtful if such an operation can be construed as a distress rescue. Many commented that this appeared to be more like a suicide mission of the refugees. To which we found it easy to explain the situation by reading out the concerned SOLAS paragraphs as below.

EU migrant Crises
Job done. All Smiles
EU migrant crises
Just Prior Disembarkations.

SOLAS Chapter V Regulation 33.1

The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so. This obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of the nationality or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found. If the ship receiving the distress alert is unable to proceed to their assistance, the master must enter in the log-book the reason for failing to proceed to the assistance of the persons in distress, taking into account the recommendation of the Organization to inform the appropriate search and rescue service accordingly.

SOLAS Chapter V Regulation 33.6

Masters of ships who have embarked persons in distress at sea shall treat them with humanity, within the capabilities and limitations of the ship.

The above extract from SOLAS is unambiguous and clear. The duty to provide assistance to anyone in Distress is an obligation and not a choice. The Master can turn down a request for rescue in only the following circumstances:

  • He has insufficient bunkers to aid in the rescue effort.
  • The rescue poses threat to his own ship and crew (e.g: rescue in hurricane, rescue in fire situations if own vessel is a loaded tanker).
  • If other vessels are already in the process of rescuing.
  • If it is indicated by the concerned MRCC that his assistance is not required.

In the end, the feeling of doing your bit in saving a life is overwhelming. Once all the refugees had disembarked into the barge, they gave the master a standing ovation followed by loud applause when they saw him on the bridge wing.

One memory from this rescue that will stay with me for the rest of my life is when I asked one of the Eritrean refugees why he was leaving behind everything in his country and fleeing the place. He simply replied “For Democracy”. It didn’t need more explanation.

Over to you..

What would you do in such situation at sea? Let’s know in the comments below.

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  1. I chanced upon this gem article while browsing the website. Didn’t get it on my FB feed and almost missed it.
    Have been plying the Medi route for a while now. This whole migrant thing now appears to be a big farce. The boys get anxious whenever they see a small boat and they just hope that it’s not a refugee boat.

  2. Salute to you Nihar Herwadkar for this brave and courageous rescue!
    Wonderfully compiled article giving insight into the difficulties and hardships of such an operation.
    Knowing that one may not have been trained for such operations, you have done a commendable job of documenting everything and making sure you are not putting at stake the health and safety of your crew members or the refugees.
    Brilliant article!

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