Spring and summer 2015 have seen an unprecedented surge in refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea, often in severely overloaded and unprovisioned makeshift craft, to escape civil unrest and political crises in North Africa and the Middle East. Deaths on these crossings have more than tripled, with 1,867 losing their life at sea compared to 588 during the same period in 2014. What then is the duty on captains/crew members in the event of encountering a refugee (or indeed any) vessel in danger at sea?

The two key international conventions that answer this question are the International Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), both of which have been ratified by the major superyacht flag states (UK, Cayman, Marshall Islands etc.) and EU member states.

SOLAS states that the ‘master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea…shall proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so’.

UNCLOS goes further: ‘Every state shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers: (a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost; (b) to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him’.

There is no duty to interfere in issues of migration, and the master has no authority to hear, consider or determine any request for asylum; the duty is to provide or to render assistance if informed that persons are in distress. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has produced helpful guidance on these issues in the form of a booklet available online titled Rescue At Sea: A Guide To Principles And Practice As Applied To Refugees And Migrants.

Crew members should stay alert, use common sense and be conscious of their duties to render assistance in the event of such an emergency. Additional caution should be taken travelling through high risk waters, such as off the coast of Tunisia or Libya, ensuring that the applicable insurers are notified and wise to the fact.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has produced helpful guidance on these issues in the form of a booklet available online titled Rescue At Sea: A Guide To Principles And Practice As Applied To Refugees And Migrants.