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Faced with migrants and terrorists is private security the answer for Med shipping?

Faced with migrants and terrorists is private security the answer for Med shipping?
As if it is not enough for shipping in the Mediterranean that it is being seen as a migrant rescue service, there are now warnings that those same vessels could be harbouring Islamic State (IS) terrorists.

In May, a leaked EU strategy paper outlining a year-long Libyan air and naval campaign “to fight the migrants traffickers in accordance with international law", noted: “The potential presence of hostile forces, extremists or terrorists such as [Islamic State] should also be taken into consideration.”

Bad news for seafarers and shipowners; great news for Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs), which have been declaiming the Med as a new danger zone full of potential terrorists for months, as well they might. Recent rhetoric was typified by a press release last week from ESC Global Security, in which president and ceo Jaanus Rahumägi boldly claimed that “Terrorists and fundamentalists will take advantage of the crisis if they haven’t already,” and the area “should be given High Risk Area status”. Rahumägi indicated that moving the EU’s Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) operation Atalanta, which protects vessels from Gulf of Aden piracy, was “not the answer”. “[Just because] because the risk of Somali piracy has been reduced does not mean it has been eradicated." To his credit, rather than a complete PMSC Wild-West, Rahumägi recommends that "a separate EUNAVFOR patrol" be provided in the Mediterranean.

ICS secretary general Peter Hinchliffe tells Seatrade Maritime News: “Coastal States have an obligation to provide adequate search and rescue resources to meet the current need – evidently the need is not currently being matched. Merchant ships are not there to provide any other service except as a first responder in cases of distress as provided for in international law.”

Speaking with Seatrade Maritime News, Rahumägi is even more pessimistic. “This is a special situation which requires a special solution,” he said. “State budgets are limited. We must do something to protect Europe. Some governments want to pull back the navies from the Indian Ocean. But if not for navy vessels on the Indian Ocean, I’m not sure shipping would remain safe against Somali piracy.”

PMSCs are operationally limited in ways that navies are not, as evidenced by the extremely drawn-out case against the crew of Advanfort vessel Seaman Guard Ohio, detained in India without trial for almost two years. Co-operation between governments and PMSCs seems unlikely, given that the EU is planning its own joint Libyan offensive. “They need very well trained people for that, and they need a very good legal base to act," says Rahumägi. "I’m not convinced that this could happen quickly. In general, though, it is possible, today, for a shipping company to use them – but only for judgement of the security of the vessel, to help understand what is going on and if needed to make a decision whether to take refugees on board. SOLAS allows the captain not to take refugees on board if there may be security risks to the vessel or crew.”

While Hinchliffe avoided mention of terrorism, he described a beefed-up naval presence, strictly for Search and Rescue, as “An appropriate short-term response”. However, “It needs to be recognised that the migrant flow is unlikely to reduce in the short term and a longer term approach is required in terms of policy and resources.

"It is for States to decide on priorities for the employment of their forces but it is not timely to reduce military deployments to the Indian Ocean – the two problems are neither linked nor mutually exclusive.  Both require appropriate resources to protect the free flow of world trade,” Hinchliffe added.

This week, International Maritime Organization (IMO) launched a joint platform with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for information sharing on migrant smuggling by sea. Although IOM spokesperson Joel Millman assures, “We don’t see any link to anything like terrorism”, and that “we don’t foresee any danger to shipping companies,” his words were tempered with a degree of caution. “A lot of migrants come from Libya and we know that there are all kinds of radicals in Libya.”

Millman highlights recent conjecture that the Moroccan man who committed the recent Tunisia shootings, which killed 21, arrived in Sicily on a trafficking vessel. “It’s not like it’s never happened - we don’t want to be naïve and rule anything out.”

However, it was difficult to say whether putting PMSCs on ships was a reasonable precaution for shipping lines, Millman says. “Shipping is going to have to look at the risk factors. We don’t see danger to ships. Having people strictly for stopping terrorists, I’d say it’s not needed right now. But having trained personnel on board, not necessarily armed security, would be useful for handling rescues. We’ve seen migrants die of hypothermia on deck – it’s horrific for seafarers who have already pulled them out of the water. We’d love to see ships equipped with adequate medical facilities, a lot of them just don’t have them.”

It is clear that shipping has woefully inadequate resources for rescuing hundreds of migrants at a time, and the industry has no business securing the Mediterranean with private security contractors. Instead, it must continue to count on the EU for decisive action – and hope for as few further migrant casualties as possible. However, if this does not happen quickly enough shipowners may turn to PMSC providers as the only option, much as they did a few years earlier to combat Somali piracy.