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On the front line of illegal migration

On the front line of illegal migration

This year, it was recently revealed, there were more people fleeing war, famine and persecution than at any time since the end of World War II. Maybe it should not surprise us, as everywhere we look there are terrible things happening, which prompt people to leave their homes.

A sizeable proportion of these displaced people (whether they are asylum seekers or economic migrants is irrelevant) are finding themselves afloat at some stage of their journey. They will have placed themselves in the hands of the people smugglers, criminal gangs which have multiplied to service the needs of the desperate and charge accordingly. Increasingly merchant shipping finds itself encountering the highly unsuitable craft employed by the criminals, with masters facing real humanitarian problems.

You are the master of a large merchant vessel on passage in the Mediterranean or Southeast Asian waters. You have a crew of about 20, a free-fall lifeboat and a small rescue craft. The officer of the watch alerts you to a small craft exhibiting signs of distress. The weather is poor, seas rising and just a couple of hours of daylight left but as you close what appears to be a large open boat, you become aware that there are possibly a hundred or more souls crammed into this hull. The craft appears to have no means of propulsion, the nearest land is hundreds of miles away and its chances of surviving the night would appear slim. There are women and small children on board, many appear to be in the last stages of exhaustion, and perhaps as worrying, there are people embarked who appear armed.

How do you get these people aboard your ship, a high-sided vessel which is difficult to manoeuvre at low speed? It is plainly obvious from the state of the craft and the distress of its occupants that you cannot leave them there. Any assistance from coastal authorities is hours away and this incident is taking place, not in coastal waters, but the high seas. How can you and your handful of seafarers properly respond, without loss of life and without hazard to your own crew? It is, in truth, a difficult dilemma, but one which a growing number of seafarers are facing as this human fallout from the horrors of life on land intensifies.

This year alone, some 38,000 people have fled North Africa in a variety of highly unsuitable craft, in a desperate attempt to make a landfall in Europe. They come from Libya, from Sub-Saharan Africa, even from the horrors of the civil war in Syria. And in Southeast Asian waters, “escape routes” have been identified across the Bay of Bengal from Bangladesh and from Myanmar to Malaysia. People from as far afield as the Middle East have been picked up in the Timor Straits on what they hoped was the last leg of a journey to Australia.

The “trade” if it can be so described has attracted some very unsavoury criminal elements which have no hesitation in packing their clients off to sea in unsuitable and overloaded craft, tricking the desperate refugees out of their money and belongings and deserting them at the first sign of trouble. We cannot begin to guess how many of these wretched people have died on their journeys, but there have been estimates of thousands.

It is ordinary seafarers, who already have enough to put up with from pirates and robbers, who find themselves on the front line and facing this human tragedy. It is to their credit that so many respond. But we should not be surprising that some, when a small craft is seen, resolutely look in the other direction.  

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