How Long Must the Tampa Wait?

Friday, August 31, 2001
Much has been said and written about the fate of the refugees aboard the Norwegian RoRo vessel Tampa and who's to blame. What has not been discussed is what the Tampa should have done or the international community's distressing response to the fate of not only the refugees but also to that of the Tampa's crew.

At 1103 local time on Sunday, 26 August 2001 in Indonesian territorial waters, the Tampa received a call from the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) Australia asking it to rescue a fishing vessel in distress, as she was apparently the vessel closest. The Captain was told by RCC Australia that the ship was holding roughly 80 people. The Tampa, which was built to accommodate 40 people safely and only has a crew of 27 seaman, suddenly found herself having to rescue 438 people, 22 of whom are women and 43 of whom are children.

Once the Tampa had the refugees on board, she resumed her voyage for Indonesia and her next port of call which was Singapore. At this point, a group of refugees approached the Captain and its crew and stated that they would take dramatic action if the vessel made any attempt to take them back to Indonesia. Due to the sheer number of people involved, the Captain saw no alternative but to deviate to the nearest port of refuge which has as present refused to accept them.

Despite the fact that Tampa had other commitments, her Captain chose instead to rescue the refugees rather than to let them perish at sea. He did so not only for humanitarian reasons but also in full compliance with international regulations - the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) - which require masters to assist ships and persons in distress at sea. BIMCO, on behalf of its ship owner members, commends this action. BIMCO is deeply concerned and disappointed by the behaviour of the international community, particularly those of whom are signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees. The international community has chosen to ignore international protocols and regulations regarding the safe and timely disembarkment of such refugees.

Furthermore, there has been little to no attention paid to the health and safety of the refugees or that of the Tampa's crew. Moreover, forcing a vessel to continue navigation whilst burdened with such a large number of people on board, for which she is neither designed nor equipped, is a reckless disregard of the stipulations incorporated into SOLAS. BIMCO feels that the international community must live up to its obligations to bring this precarious situation to a safe and timely conclusion. BIMCO is the world's leading private association of shipping companies, with nearly 2,700 members in 122 countries. The owner-members of BIMCO control a fleet of 470 million DWT thereby representing 65% of the world's merchant fleet. Among its many activities, the organisation provides strictly professional, non-political information and counselling services for the maritime community including owners, brokers, agents and club members. BIMCO is an official observer at the International Maritime Organization.

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