Some 15,000 migrants have died since 2014 – everyone trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe. With crews having a moral and legal obligation to save lives at sea, what steps can skippers take to balance the safety of migrants with that of their ships and crews? Rufus Caldecott discusses the issues

Migration is by no means a new phenomenon on the world stage. A substantial portion of United States’ history was built on the mass migration of peoples from across Europe, in search of a better life. This was due to similar circumstances as today, such as famine, persecution and war. Today, the Mediterranean EU member states are struggling to bear the brunt of absorbing migrants. Bogged down by the wave of populist domestic politics currently sweeping the continent, most EU states are reluctant to take in a significant share of migrants.

The migrants themselves mainly come from the Middle East and Africa. Whilst many have legally valid cases for asylum having fled war-torn countries like Syria, some are understandably pursuing what they hope will be a better life in Europe. Three of the main routes into Europe require a perilous sea journey across the Mediterranean. These trips are often made on small boats that are old, unsafe and are often packed past capacity. The unfortunate consequence is these trafficking boats often capsize and sink.

Originally EU member state navies patrolled the Med to rescue migrants, but due to political pressure from the Italian government, all sea patrols were called off in March 2019, whilst airborne patrols were advanced. Although the Libyan Coastguard is getting funding and training from the EU, they cannot prevent all boats from escaping the coast.

As all commercial skippers and crewmen will know, it is their legal obligation under UN convention to ‘ensure that assistance be provided to any person in distress at sea.’ They shall do so ‘regardless of the nationality or status of such a person or the circumstances in which that person is found.’ Aside from international law, a skipper is also bound to feel morally obliged to help. They cannot, however, do so without potentially compromising security. If a vessel chooses to return migrants to where they embarked, then the risk of danger to the ship and crew increases substantially.

Prevention of stowaways
Despite most ports having adequate security, the possibility of stowaways cannot be ruled out. Successful unauthorised boarding of a vessel must be prevented at all costs, as it will likely prove very difficult to eject migrants. This was the case in Misrata in 2018 when 79 refugees refused to disembark a ship for fear of the detention facilities in Libya. They were eventually forcibly removed by Libyan armed forces.

In the example of the Margate incident in December 2018, (discussed later), the migrants were stowaways and were able to board the ship at one of four west African ports that the ship stopped at, en-route to the UK. If a migrant were to penetrate places they could hide.

It is important to be adequately briefed on the risk of stowaways at ports. Where the risk is substantial, it will be necessary to establish teams to guard the vessel. This would mainly involve watching out for small boats at any potential access points, such as the anchor chain.

Anything that has a door, be it a room entrance or a locker, should be locked when not in use. When a room is in use, the door should be locked from the inside to ensure escape in the case of emergency, but still prevent unauthorised entrance. In order to achieve this, the skipper will require good discipline from the crew. The greater the discipline, the lesser chance a stowaway has of finding an access point or hiding place. Likewise, any access to the boat, such as ladders or gangways should only be deployed when needed, with the additional security of an on-duty watch team. Extra vigilance is particularly important at night-time. Once the vessel has left port, teams should be appointed to search different parts of the ship in case stowaways managed to board. If found, they can immediately be returned to port.

When rescuing migrants
In December 2014, a group of migrants managed to sneak onto a ship sailing from Lagos to Tilbury in Essex. The group were discovered by the ship’s crew and detained in a cabin. They managed to break free and arm themselves with metal rods. Once the ship was close to the UK, the stowaways attempted to intimidate the skipper to steer near the coast so they could jump off and swim. Luckily the ship’s crew managed to barricade themselves in the bridge and the skipper radioed emergency services. In the end, UK special forces carried out a raid on the vessel and managed to secure it. More recently in March 2019, 108 migrants were rescued from the middle of the Mediterranean. When they realised that the ship was heading to North Africa, they took control of the bridge and intimidated the crew to take the ship to Malta. The situation ended when Maltese special forces conducted a raid and regained control. Both examples illustrate the dangers that crew face when rescuing and hosting migrants aboard a vessel.

Migrants are understandably extremely reluctant to return to where they embarked and some will do almost anything to reach European shores. When travelling through known migrant routes, it is essential that crews are prepared for a scenario where they may have to rescue migrants. Skippers should alert any nearby navy vessels or coastguard, as they can potentially help with the rescue, as well as to keep the vessel safe.

Rufus Caldecott is an Operations Analyst at Blackstone Consultancy. Blackstone Consultancy provides individuals and companies with bespoke, discreet and exceptionally vigilant security arrangements. Whilst London-based, the firm’s clients are located throughout the UK, as well as far afield as Moscow, LA, Cape Town and Doha. Its team of private security and intelligence specialists operate worldwide from capital cities to some of the world’s most notorious trouble spots. The firm’s tailored private services include, but are not limited to: personal protection, building safety, asset security, reputation protection, surveillance and investigations.