Rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea: HWG-member Bremer Reederei reports

Interview with Arne Ehlers, Managing Director of Bremer Reederei E & B GmbH

Arne Ehlers, copyright Bremer Reederei E & B GmbHMr. Ehlers, the Bremer Reederei has seven vessels on the North African trade route. How often do your vessels have to participate in rescue operations?

The refugee problem off the North African coast, namely from Libya with destination Italy, has been existing for a while now. However, we seem to witness a considerable increase currently. The closer you get to the Libyan coast, the more likely you encounter boats with refugees. So far, we have taken part in a search-operation on one occasion and on 20 April, one of our vessels rescued 90 refugees.

Who is organizing the rescue-operations and how are they carried out?

The Italian Coast Guard asked us to participate in search operations and to rescue refugees. The entire operation is coordinated closely with the Italian Coast Guard, which transmits coordinates of boats with refugees, recorded by sea patrol planes. The Merchant Ship then has to deviate from its original route and sail to the given position. It is important to approach the refugee boat with caution and depending on the weather situation. The refugees may try to escape since they do not want to be captured by the Italian forces. In such a case, the vessel has to stay near the refugee boat only for offering help. Refugees cannot be taken over by force because of legal reasons.  Only when the refugees decide to accept assistance, the crew is allowed to take them on board, where they will be taken care of in the best way possible. The Italian Coast Guard then instructs the vessel to hand over the refugees at a meeting point, e.g. to an Italian Coast Guard or Navy Ship.

What are the risks of such operations and what should be done to improve the situation, especially for ship owners?

The risks for the captain and the crew should not be underestimated. Multiple scenarios come to mind when thinking of a 12-15 men strong crew, taking in 90 refugees. For safety reasons and for the precise record of any action, the Italian Coast Guard strictly demands documentation of every rescue operation. Nevertheless, in terms of provision and weather, every rescue operation remains a highly precarious maneuver. Therefore, we are very grateful to our captains and crews for the great work done under these conditions.

Our number one aim is to save lives – this has always been the sacred duty for seamen of every nation and religion. The situation becomes problematic, when this is not a matter of the occasional ship in distress and the request for help, but when criminal smugglers deploy huge quantities of unseaworthy boats and thereby consciously provoke emergency cases. Here, the commercial shipping industry is overburdened. This is also underlined by the huge number of refugees rescued on board of the vessels. Obviously, every vessel is equipped with sufficient provisions for her own crew, which last for a certain time, but which in rescue cases can only serve as first emergency supply. It is now being considered to equip the vessels as a precautionary measure with sufficient blankets, crackers and water bottles; however, today this would have to be sponsored by the owners. We will certainly approach relief organizations for support; still the financial means are limited.

Clearly, all vessels in the respective sea areas have to assist. However, the major burden needs to be carried by the Coast Guard and Navy of whatever country is involved in the rescue operations. There has to be a consideration of cost-sharing from which the commercial shipping industry benefits, because rescue- and search-operations are time-consuming and performed repeatedly in these waters today.


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