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European Coast Guard Functions Forum

September 25, 2014

European Coast Guard Functions Forum
Civitavecchia, Italy, 23 September 2014
Speech by Koji Sekimizu, Secretary-General, IMO

Vice-Admiral Angrisano, distinguished participants and guests, colleagues in the maritime community, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be with you today at this important forum, designed to facilitate dialogue and promote enhanced cooperation and harmonization among senior coast guard officials from agencies within Europe. My thanks go to the Italian Coast Guard for organising the event, and for the European Commission, under the Italian presidency of the EU, for giving it its full support.

As coast guards, the disciplines in which you find yourselves involved on a daily basis are many and varied - search and rescue, navigation safety, maritime security, border control and police work, fishery and environmental protection are just a few of the areas in which your skill and expertise are vital to your countries and to the region as a whole.

But, today, here in Italy, I should like to concentrate in these remarks on one particular issue that, I know, is not only of great concern to you, but which has far wider implications and impacts.

The issue of illegal migration by sea between north Africa and Europe has been an active concern for decades – if not longer. But, in recent years, it has reached staggering proportions, to the extent where the whole system for coping with such migrants is being stretched up to, and sometimes beyond, its breaking point. So, today I am going to talk to you about this issue.

It is a fact that migration has been part of history since the beginning of mankind. Throughout history, people have fled hunger, war and prosecution or moved simply in order to find a better life elsewhere. Today, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, an estimated 232 million people currently live outside their country of origin. 

History has shown that migrants contribute to economic growth and human development. Migration is an important means for migrants and their families to improve their living conditions and realize their basic human rights. Indeed, the right to migrate is implicitly or explicitly enshrined in a number of international instruments, not least the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Charter.

But sadly for all concerned, what we see in the Mediterranean today, between north Africa and Europe, is an onslaught of illegal migration, in which not only are such procedures completely ignored but huge numbers of people take to the sea in craft that are clearly not fit for the purpose, placing their own lives in great danger.

The figures reveal the huge extent of the problem. According to figures provided by Italy, during this year, the number of migrants rescued stands at around 130,000. The Italian Coast Guard has rescued around 30,000; diverted merchant ships have rescued around 30,000; and the Mare Nostrum operation and others, around 70,000. And these figures do not touch upon the tragically huge death toll among those migrants who were not so fortunate.

From IMO’s perspective, the SOLAS and SAR Conventions have clearly set the obligation on a ship’s master to render assistance and also set a corresponding obligation on contracting Governments to coordinate and cooperate to deliver persons retrieved at sea to a place of safety within a reasonable time; and these obligations apply regardless of the status of the persons in distress at sea, including potentially illegal migrants.

But the sheer size and scale of situation we see in Europe today is threatening to jeopardise these humanitarian principles. Coast guards, navies and the rescue infrastructure as a whole are all being stretched to breaking point. 

Italy and Malta, in particular, along with other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, have reported severe problems in their ability to cope with the on-shore processing of the large numbers of undocumented migrants who reach their shores. 

This situation has implications far beyond coast guards and other professional rescuers.  Figures I have seen suggest that, from 1 January to 3 September this year, no fewer than 436 merchant ships were diverted from their routes to rescue persons at sea.

The high number of merchant ship diversions has an obvious detrimental impact on the shipping industry, and a knock-on effect on trade – and is clearly a matter for IMO if it calls into question the proper application of international regulations.  

It is abundantly clear that what we face here is a huge and multi-faceted problem. It is a problem with social, political, geo-political and economic dimensions. But above all else, it is a humanitarian problem – as anyone who has seen rows of bodies on a beach, bodies of people who died just looking for a better life, will be the first to acknowledge.

We must find a solution and we must take action now. I recall my participation in the United Nations Conference on Somali Piracy held in December 2008 in Nairobi, Kenya. That was the turning point of the international community in dealing with piracy off the coast of Somalia. General consensus was formed that defence force by navies must be strengthened and the shipping industry was invited to increase the level of self-protection. IMO and the shipping industry developed the Best Management Practices and the Contact Group on Piracy off the coast of Somalia was formed. The Djibouti Code of Conduct was adopted and large numbers of navy vessels were deployed. Thousands of seafarers were kept hostage and hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid for ransom, but almost all seafarers have been released. It is still premature to evaluate our efforts but, certainly we have been successful in containment of piracy off the coast of Somalia.  The point here is that the international community has acted with determination to counter piracy.

Its solution for maritime migration, therefore, must be a collaborative effort, and it must involve all those who can be counted among the potential stakeholders. There has, for example, been a series of meetings under the auspices of IMO in recent years with the intention of drawing up a regional instrument to improve the coordination of SAR operations and to facilitate the disembarkation of persons rescued at sea in the Mediterranean region. 

But, at best, initiatives like this just treat the symptoms of the problem – not the root cause. The overall objective must be some form of managed and sustainable migration mechanism, but that is something that lies outside the scope of IMO – indeed, of any agency working alone.

If the process of illegal migration by sea starts ashore, it seems only relevant and appropriate that, ultimately, the solution to illegal migration should be sought ashore as has been the case of Somali piracy. The focus must be on finding ways to ensure that migrants who travel by sea do so in a safe, controlled and legal manner. Migration needs to be managed in such a way that it is both safe for the potential migrants to travel to and reside in their new countries, and sustainable for all the countries involved – whether origin or recipient.

The current onslaught of migration by sea is not a random occurrence. It is being organised and orchestrated by people who trade and traffic the lives of others. This is the crime that needs to be tackled. Poor migrants do not possess boats. Somebody must have arranged boats, fuel, boat operators and have set sail against all safety regulations. It is an organized crime. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime has as an annex, the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air. Together, this Convention and Protocol establish a very clear and comprehensive regime of criminal liability against migrant smuggling. The Protocol, for example, contains procedures for the boarding and searching of vessels suspected of smuggling and for the detention and arrest of smugglers. Nearly all the countries involved in the current situation are States Parties to these instruments, which means that the smuggling of migrants by sea should be a crime in their jurisdictions. We have already a firm legal basis to take action. 

But, like all multi-lateral instruments, this Convention and Protocol require full and robust implementation if they are to be effective. While they fall within the remit of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, IMO also stands ready to collaborate and give its support to all those who can play an active part in addressing this dreadful situation; and I am thinking here not only of the UNODC but also of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, INTERPOL, the African Union, the European Union and the European Commission, as well as bodies such as the Economic Commissions for Africa and for Europe. 

Collectively, we need to work together to develop impact-oriented actions; as an international community, we need to deliver as one. We must take action now. We must take action against smugglers, those supplying boats, those operating them and all involved in this organized crime. The international community must act now with the same determination as was effectively demonstrated for the case of Somali piracy. 

In the meantime, the plight of these persons, who risk a tragic fate by taking to overcrowded small boats of dubious safety under extreme conditions, and often perish - sometimes in sight of land - continues as a blight on the 21st century. We should spare no effort to bring it to an end, sooner rather than later. 

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.
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