Rescue of persons and refugees in distress at sea - Advices and suggested checklists


RefugeesDue to the uncertain situation in the Middle East and Africa, record numbers of refugees have attempted to reach Europe and particularly Italy by sea in 2014.In light of this situation, the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association (NSA) has issued advices and provided suggested checklists for operations involving the rescue of persons and refugees in distress at sea - ‘Refugees at Sea – Large Scale SAR Operations

Several Gard Members and clients have been involved in rescuing refugees in distress at sea in the central and eastern Mediterranean during spring and summer 2014. There is a longstanding tradition at sea that vessels assist in such operations and the SOLAS and UN Refugee Conventions regulate vessels’ legal obligations to assist, the right of the ship to disembark those rescued in a safe port, and restrictions on the return of refugees to unsafe ports. According to the 1982 UNCLOS Convention the Master should always obey the orders issued by local authorities and assist by proceeding “with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress …, insofar as such action may reasonably be expected of him”. This is expected as long as the operation does not endanger the ship or its crew.

In most of these cases ships have been requested by the Italian Coast Guard to sail to a certain position to perform a Search and Rescue (SAR) operation. Relatively small boats in distress, often overloaded with refugees, many of them women and children, have been located and thousands of refugees have been picked up and saved.

The NSA guidelines are primarily meant for Norwegian vessels but may be useful for all Gard’s members and clients operating in areas where human trafficking is commonplace, whether in the Mediterranean or elsewhere. Gard’s Members and clients with vessels operating in such areas are recommended to review and familiarise themselves with the guidelines and checklists and ensure that the crews are briefed about the present situation and challenges and that they are properly prepared for this type of operations. It is important that the crew fully understands the risks involved when rescuing and taking onboard refugees.

As soon as your vessel is requested to take part in a SAR operation, Gard as the P&I club should be notified immediately. We will assist the Master on each individual case and if the persons saved at sea will have to disembark ashore, we will assist using our local correspondents who normally have experience from previous cases within the same geographical area. The local Coast Guard will normally instruct the vessel to disembark refugees at a specific port.

NSA Check list - summary of suggested guidelines: 

  • Ensure your company and crew is prepared. Discuss scenarios, roles, risks, solutions.
  • Approach the refugees with a mob boat. Provide life vests, water/nutrition if possible.
  • Establish trust. Assure the refugees that they are safe and will not be returned to shore.
  • Calm down the refugees. Protect their boat from winds, waves, using you own ship.
  • Keep in touch with the MRCC. Maintain good internal communication among the crew.
  • If embarking refugees: Secure, prepare your ship. Lock the interior. Seal off dangerous areas.
  • The transfer/embarkation phase is critical. Ensure safety and order to avoid accidents.
  • Note the number of people. Specify gender, children, and nationality. Document events.
  • Implement hygiene and infectious disease control measures for crew. Use protective gear.
  • Keep refugees on deck in a 24/7 controlled environment. Wear uniforms, display authority.
  • Control what the refugees bring on board. Body search/metal scan? Confiscate knives, etc.
  • Show cultural and gender sensitivity. Identify and assist the most vulnerable.
  • Ensure safety and supervision of children. Some may travel unaccompanied.
  • Provide water and food/nutrition/shelter/medical aid as per your capabilities.
  • Consider destroying the refugee boat –but note that the traffickers may try to interfere.
  • After disembarking / transferring to a safe port:
  • Search for stowaways. Hand over any remaining ID papers / belongings to the authorities.
  • Disinfect decks / areas. Dispose of used personal protective equipment, properly.
  • Debrief your crew after operation. Remember: some may need extra follow-up.

Further information can be found in the full guidelines “Refugees at sea. Large scale SAR operations

To avoid potentially dangerous situations arising, e.g. onboard a gas tanker, Gard would also recommend that the refugees saved are not allowed to take any of their personal belongings on board apart from clothes/blankets. The crew must assure that no one carries a lighter or anything else that is flammable before embarking. After the boarding is complete some of the crew may go back to the refugee boat and collect whatever is necessary in order to secure the life and health of the refugees.

The current Ebola outbreak also illustrates the potential health risks for crews involved in rescue operations. Merchant ships are not always prepared to manage such risks in the same way as for example attending local coast guard vessels. They are not necessarily equipped with the required personal protective equipment when embarking survivors and are most likely not trained for the situation. (Additional information about Ebola is available in Gard’s Spotlight: “Ebola Virus Disease (EVD)” - available on Gard’s website:

Further information and resources
Further details on what to do when your vessel is involved in rescuing persons in distress at sea can be found in Gard’s Guidance to Masters paragraph 3.13 “Refugees”, and in Gard Loss Prevention Circular No 13–09 “Refugees and migrants rescued at Sea“. Reference is also made to the following useful resources:

Source: Gard

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