Nearly 400,000 people drown every year, and we all need to be doing more, says Bruce Reid, CEO of the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF).
The IMRF is a charity, and member organisations share their search and rescue ideas, technologies and experiences and cooperate with one another to achieve their common humanitarian aim: preventing loss of life in the world’s waters.
Human Rights at Sea spoke to Bruce about the charity’s role in helping to alleviate the high number of migrant drowning deaths and the need for a global approach to search and rescue (SAR).
HRAS: How is the IMRF involved in the migrant crisis in Europe?
The IMRF has coordinated the support provided by our European members helping with the migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea. Members provided boats, training, equipment and other support to local members of the Hellenic Rescue Team who are in turn saving thousands of lives.
Our help has included the provision of rescue boats by the Dutch NGO KNRM. The Swedish NGO SSRS, German NGO DGzRS and the UK and Ireland NGO RNLI have also provided boats, training and support. The Norwegian volunteer rescue service RS has provided a rescue cruiser and crew to the Frontex operation and has also secured funds to support the Hellenic Rescue Team.
As a result, there are now more trained crew and boats available on Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Kos. Our members’ support for Hellenic Rescue Team has saved lives and given the local rescue services a much needed boost.
It has been a truly international effort, and its legacy will be a well-trained and resourced volunteer maritime SAR response capability for the Hellenic Rescue Team, cooperating with the Hellenic Coast Guard to keep people safe on Greek waters.
HRAS: Why is building such capability important?
Building capability rather than reacting to tragedy should be the priority for maritime SAR.
To this end, we support the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s push to find solutions to the widening funding gap for SAR operations and his move to direct investment from external crisis intervention to providing local and national SAR response capability. This capability should include managing initial crisis response and then structuring plans to escalate efforts with international support.
The IMRF is also championing the completion of the IMO’s Global SAR plan. The plan aims to support governments and SAR organisations internationally to deliver an integrated sea rescue service wherever mariners might need assistance. It also aims to ensure that when people are in distress, SAR communications service providers and SAR authorities know where to send or relay distress alerts.
It is clear that not all humanitarian crises can be planned and managed for, but many have common characteristics, and one is the lack of sophistication in local and national SAR coordination. We need to see countries develop greater co-ordination capability.
We want to assist in building improved and fully coordinated SAR response capability in areas of high risk, thus reducing the global drowning death toll of migrants, notably in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. We also recognise that this is a long term aim as is the migrant rescue problem.
HRAS: How does IMRF view the interactions between the various SAR entities operating in the region?
Co-operation between the agencies and the receptiveness of the search and rescue teams operating in the Aegean are big positives. This type of cooperation needs to be built on. There needs to be further development of the coastal states coordination and response capability so they can actively manage SAR in their waters. More effective ways to stop the push need to be found so rescue is not needed.
One of our core activities is helping maritime SAR organisations understand how best to communicate and co-ordinate, and given the complexities of bringing together different parties with varying objectives, operations in the Aegean have been very successful. But, we need to get better, and that’s why we constantly engage in workshops to try and help develop best practice in communication and co-ordination where it falls short.
So, we need to bring the operational people together to share the lessons learned.
How do you view the role of merchant vessels in the migrant crisis?
The recovery of large numbers of people from the water is effectively a mass rescue operation. We cannot allow the merchant vessels to become the front line of SAR for these crises as was the case to start with in the Mediterranean. The responsibility for rescue sits firmly with the coastal states, and this fact needs to be reinforced.
When vessels of opportunity are used, it is imperative that they are provided with a safe port to off-load the people as quickly as possible. The Coordination Centres need to take responsibility for the people being rescued until they are safe ashore. The merchant vessel is not a place of safety.
HRAS: Has there been any members arrested for facilitating the entry of migrants into Europe?
Our member organisations have experience in maritime SAR and work with the authorities in their countries, so we’ve had no issues, but there was a massive response from willing volunteers with boats wanting to head out and save people not understanding the risks or appreciating the operating rules.
We have seen reports where NGOs, not accustomed to the rules relating to maritime rescue, were not in communication with the authorities and were therefore perceived as a risk. The risk of this happening is accentuated by the varying regulations that apply at sea – as highlighted in the Human Rights at Sea guidance Volunteer Maritime Rescuers: Awareness of Criminalisation. To help with this in the Aegean, we worked alongside the Hellenic Coast Guard to assist in coordinating the NGO response, including providing advice to some of the new maritime SAR NGOs.
HRAS: How important are human rights issues to your work?
As you know, we declared our full support for the Human Rights at Sea guidance supporting SAR operations, because it focuses strongly on European legislation and international search and rescue obligations.
The guidelines target volunteer maritime rescuers, but they are also equally applicable to NGOs, civil society organisations and even private shipmasters. There’s no doubt that the need for this resource has been highlighted by the recent events in the Mediterranean, where many NGOs have responded to the call to help bolster the local maritime SAR capability for rescuing people in distress. Many of these groups not only found themselves being confronted by the difficulty of interpreting local authorities’ rules and conventions but also having to contend with cross-border issues that they would not have encountered in their home territories.
With that in mind, the guidance provided in the Human Rights at Sea document will be an invaluable resource for current and future rescuers, helping them to minimise the risk of their humanitarian actions being in conflict with the laws and regulations that govern rescue at sea.
The only challenge SAR organisations should face in undertaking their maritime rescue operations is with the elements, not with authorities. With this in mind, it is important to keep the events in the Mediterranean in context. In many ways, this is not core maritime search and rescue. The people smugglers heading out of Libya “stage” the distress to make money from the migrants. So the rescue services know where they are and effectively go and try to collect them before the unsafe unseaworthy boat they have been sent out in sinks.
As long as the people come and end up in distress, they must be rescued.
HRAS: The migrant issue is now front page news. Has interest in the IMRF grown accordingly?
Interest in the IMRF’s global activities increased during 2015 as a result of the World Maritime Rescue Congress and the escalating migrant problem. A number of feature pieces were published about our work, and, apart from broadcast coverage of the Congress, most notably by Deutsche Welles, there was also extensive pick-up on stories from the event including the session on the migrant crisis, the Rescue Boat Guidelines and the Mass Rescue Operations library.
During the year there were stories across more than 50 different magazines and on-line publications resulting in more than 100 articles. These were principally in the maritime trade publications but also in some national newspapers and across a variety of social media.
The media that most consistently report on IMRF stories are The Maritime Executive, Ship Management International, All About Shipping, Seafarer Times and the Shipping Tribune.
Our challenge now is that the people drowning in the Mediterranean are no longer front page news, and yet they still come. In one day last June, the Italian Coast Guard was coordinating 41 rescues at one time all involving large numbers of people, all mass rescue operations. With up to 15,000 people per week still being rescued, there is not the attention and concern that was there 12 months ago. This has a negative impact on the NGO’s who are reliant on donations to do the work they are doing.
As I started saying at the beginning, we must do more.