I hope that readers of my intermittent blog will forgive a departure from the strict business of Nagalro members. I am driven to my keyboard by news of Banksy’s ship, the Louise Michel and the fate of those it rescued from watery graves in the Mediterranean. Ships that have picked up people from sinking inflatables often find that they are denied help or a local harbour to disembark people, even those in need of medical aid. Since many of those found adrift in the Mediterranean or, indeed trying to cross the Channel are children, I hope that this issue still falls within my remit.
A number of my forebears went to sea and by no means all of them returned. Many years ago, I amused myself taking the Royal Yachting Association’s exams to obtain my skipper’s ticket and then the exams to obtain a radio operator’s licence. I was taught that I must keep a ‘listening watch’ (meaning don’t switch the radio off) on VHF channel 16 in case of any distress messages, to which I was legally and morally obliged to respond. Mixing together my lawyer’s skills with some experience of standing watch on a dark and windy night with no lights to be seen, gives me a personal perspective on the issue of rescues at sea.
It is easier, perhaps, to dismiss people as ‘other’ and to close your doors and hearts to them when you are safe ashore and they are hundreds of miles away. Out of sight, you can, perhaps convince yourself that they are not real. Not like you. Not your problem. Look over a ship’s rail, however, at people struggling in the water, look down into those frightened faces, coughing and choking on sea water… if you can turn away then, you are truly beyond redemption.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 sets out the legal duty of mariners to respond to those in distress. Article 98(1) says:
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;
Article 98(2) imposes further obligations on all coastal states when it says:
Every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and, where circumstances so require, by way of mutual regional arrangements cooperate with neighbouring States for this purpose.
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 1974 (known as ‘SOLAS’) repeats the obligation on mariners to come to the aid of anyone in danger at sea. In Chapter V regulation 33, we are told:
‘The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so.’
In 2006, this obligation was made even clearer by the addition of the words:
‘This obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of the nationality or status of such person or the circumstances in which they are found’
Now, I am quite willing to accept that people-smugglers will quite ruthlessly exploit these obligations, and their victims, by sending women and children out, in the most unseaworthy craft, on the basis that someone else will have to pick them up. They are making money from the fact that others will come to the rescue – or not. Once they have been paid, it probably doesn’t matter to them. Does any of this change the situation? I cannot see that it does.
We live in a rules-based society. That means that there are sets of rules which apply to everyone, including governments, and which must be obeyed, regardless of whether you agree with them or not. Hence for example, pacifism does not excuse you from paying taxes which will, in part, pay for military expenditure. Child arrangements orders must be obeyed, even by parents who disagree with the decision the judge has made. In just the same way, rules have been made about what we must do when people are in danger at sea. Those rules were made by our governments. It is surely not too much to ask that those same governments support those who are obeying their legal and moral obligations, by then accepting those who have been rescued. Turning ships away is just as immoral as sailing past people drowning in the water.
I would finally pose what, I hope, may be an uncomfortable question. If the migrants/refugees were white South Africans, would our politicians be as prepared to speak of ‘hoards’ and be as willing to let some drown to discourage the rest?