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August 24, 2005

Australia issues rescue guidelines

Australia's Department of Transport and Regional Services (DOTARS) has recently issued Guidelines for Commercial Shipping Rescuing Persons at Sea In or Adjacent to the Australian Search and Rescue Region.

Inevitably, the subject of rescue at sea in the Austrlian region revives memories of the Tampa incident.

Back in August 2001 Captain Arne Rinnan of the Wilhelm Wilhelmsen containership Tampa diverted the ship from its scheduled course, at the risk of substantial delays and large financial losses, to rescue 438 boat people. The asylum seekers subsequently spent more than a week aboard the ship.

His actions saw Australian Special Air Services (SAS) troops armed with automatic weapons seizing control of the Tampa to prevent the rescued boat people from being landed on the Australian territory of Christmas Island

Subsequently, most of the boat people were transported to the small island nation of Nauru, with Australia footing the bill for keeping them in detention camps pending processing of asylum applications, though about 150 were accepted by New Zealand,

In 2002, UNHCR, the United nations High Commission for Refugees, honored the captain, crew and owner of the Tampa with the Nansen Refugee Award. Created in 1954, it is given annually to individuals and organizations that have distinguished themselves on behalf of refugees.

In its introduction to its recently issued guidelines, DOTARS says that while international conventions are clear on duties to assist persons in distress at sea, no conventions specify where survivors are to be taken.

"In recent years," notes DOTARS, "cases have emerged of people attempting to enter countries illegally by boat, often in overcrowded and unseaworthy craft that may get into distress, either accidentally or by design. A more recent development has been the use of force or threat to 'persuade' masters and crews of rescuing ships to transport survivors to a particular destination."

DOTARS says its guidelines are "intended to provide guidance to ships' masters involved in the rescue of persons at sea in relation to arrangements for landing survivors. The guidelines should be read in conjunction with Resolution MSC.167(78)1 , adopted by the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization on 20 May 2004."

Among other things, the guidelines note that:

Any decision to disembark rescued persons at a particular port of a State should not be made without the consent of that State;

The involvement of any ship in a rescue is likely to have commercial consequences and these consequences should be taken into account in determining the arrangements for disembarking rescued persons from the rescuing ship;

Australia has an obligation to give expeditious consideration to the identification of suitable options for the disembarkation of rescued persons and to not unreasonably withhold consent to use its port or ports for disembarkation;

Disembarkation arrangements for survivors need to be consistent with any security or border protection arrangements developed nationally, internationally or regionally;

There should be no encouragement or incentive for persons to be deliberately put at risk in pursuit of entry to Australia or for rescuees to use threat in an endeavour to dictate the place of disembarkation; and

Australia has a sovereign right to determine who comes into Australia.

While the guidelines go through the various stages of who should notify whom about what during the various stages of a rescue, shipowners will find little to comfort them in one of the guidelines on disembarkation of resued persons. It says:

"If expeditious agreement cannot be obtained to disembark the rescued persons at the preferred port or transfer them to another ship, RCC Australia will notify the Master, the flag State and the State of the preferred port that an impasse has arisen."

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