The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are both seriously concerned about the flow of people attempting to cross to Europe in small unseaworthy craft, from, among other regions, the Mediterranean and the Eastern North Atlantic
, said Mr. Efthimios E. Mitropoulos, Secretary-General of IMO, following a recent meeting at IMO headquarters in London with the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Ms. Erika Feller.
The small craft involved are often precariously overloaded, leading to circumstances requiring consequential search and rescue operations, as well as reported problems in disembarking the people involved, who may include undocumented migrants, as well as asylum seekers and refugees.
"These incidents cause serious concern in relation to the safety of life at sea, which is IMO's primary objective, while UNHCR's interest is to assist people in need of protection to find a safe haven. IMO and UNHCR intend to work even closer together and to hold a high level inter-agency meeting, as soon as possible, with a view towards achieving closer co-operation with all agencies involved and seeking further ways and means of assisting in alleviating this major humanitarian problem," Mr. Mitropoulos said, adding that the proposed meeting would be hosted by the UNHCR and would be held later this year.
On 1 July 2006, amendments to the International Convention on the Safety of life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention on Search and Rescue (SAR) entered into force, placing obligations on States to co-operate and coordinate with a view to disembarking persons rescued at sea, to a place of safety as soon as possible. The amendments complement the Master's obligations to assist persons in distress at sea by introducing corresponding obligations on Contracting Governments to assist the Master in the delivery of such persons to a place of safety.
The adoption of the amendments in 2004 followed the adoption by the IMO Assembly, in 2001, of resolution A.920(22) on Review of Safety Measures and Procedures for the Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea, which called for a review of the then existing measures. The main objective of the review was to preserve the integrity of the safety of life at sea obligations on the Master of a ship to proceed to the rescue of persons in distress, while, at the same time, recognizing the complexities of those incidents where persons rescued subsequently turn out to be undocumented migrants.
The first inter-agency meeting of UN agencies concerned - including UNHCR, the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea of the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations (UNDOALOS), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) - took place at the UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva in July 2002, in response to concerns expressed at the time over such incidents and the need for a coordinated and coherent approach to all relevant issues. Two further inter-agency meetings have been held since, at IMO headquarters in London in July 2004, and in Madrid, in March 2006.
In between the formal meetings, representatives of the relevant UN agencies have worked closely to co-operate and share information, for example on issues relating to the movement of potential migrants by sea and, in particular, in relation to incidents where persons rescued at sea by ships subsequently turn out to be asylum seekers. There have been several relevant meetings organized by UNHCR with IMO and other organizations in order to explain the provisions of the conventions and the safety of life at sea regime to relevant parties such as Governments and non-governmental organizations working in the field.
In addition, UNHCR and IMO have published a leaflet on Rescue at sea: A guide to principles and practice as applied to migrants and refugees, aimed at ship masters, as a quick reference guide. The leaflet can be downloaded on the IMO website at http://www.imo.org/home.asp?topic_id=1578