The millions of people who risk their lives in order to cross international borders in search of a better life present one of the most serious human rights problems today.

Human beings adrift at sea are not toxic cargo. From time immemorial, human instinct was to save lives endangered at sea. Instead, today, on the assumption that boats in distress carry migrants and refugees, other ships pass them by, ignoring their pleas for help. Port authorities force them back to sea to certain hardship and peril if not death as though they were turning away ships laden with dangerous waste.

In the latest shameful incident last month, scores of migrants died of hunger and thirst while attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. Reportedly, Maltese authorities had spotted their boat in distress. They provided food, water and fuel, as well as life vests, and alerted their Italian counterparts. The emaciated passengers were left to go on with their trip. Only five of them overcame this ordeal and were finally rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. The Maltese government maintains that its officials had complied with international agreements. But their acts fall woefully short of international human rights obligations and standards of conduct at sea.

In that very busy and heavily patrolled stretch of water between northern Africa and Italy, only one vessel stopped to provide sustenance to the shipwrecked. Other seafarers did not seem to take notice of the 12-meter boat and its cargo of desperate human beings adrift for 20 days.

Human rights advocates have once again raised their voice in horror and protest, reminding governments and private concerns that the rescue of persons in distress at sea is not only an obligation under the international law of the sea, but also a humanitarian necessity, irrespective of the status of voyagers and the reasons for their voyage.

Human rights law is of paramount importance. First and foremost the right to life and security of persons must be upheld, for example, by providing food, water, and all the necessary care and protection to those who desperately need such sustenance to survive. Specifically, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and recent amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea, as well as the Search and Rescue Conventions and the implementing guidelines issued by the International Maritime Organisation, anchor the rules of conduct expected and required at sea.

Government disregard of international duties represents only part of the problem. There is no doubt that ruthless smugglers of people bear much of the blame for the thousands of deaths that occur each year in the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. It is literally vital that flag States exercise effective jurisdiction and control over their vessels by ensuring strict compliance with safety standards set out in relevant international instruments so that unseaworthy ship and boats remain ashore. They must also prevent and prohibit smuggling and trafficking of migrants. Further, States inspecting vessels suspected of involvement in smuggling or trafficking must treat all persons on board humanely and in a dignified manner regardless of their status. Instead, overcrowded vessels and their passengers are sometimes endangered by the methods employed by governments and regional organisations to intercept and turn back boatloads of migrants and refugees.

There must be an unequivocal recognition that no persons, including asylum seekers and migrants, inhabit a human rights limbo while travelling or upon reaching a destination other than their country of origin.

A failure to protect migrants’ human rights encourages boat captains and shipping companies to put calculations of the financial cost of salvaging poor and unwanted seafarers in distress above both their duty to rescue and human compassion. Every time a government refuses to allow those who have been rescued to disembark at the nearest port or the final port of destination, they increase the pressure on captains and shipping companies to avert their gaze when they see a migrant boat in trouble. It can cost companies millions of dollars if States refuse to let their vessels enter ports or offload cargoes because there are migrants on board. The disincentives for responsible behaviour became paradoxically clear when fishermen who helped seafarers in distress were made to face criminal charges, rather than praise for saving lives and fulfilling a duty clearly spelled out in international law and common humanity.

The millions of people who risk their lives and safety in order to cross international borders in search of a better life present one of the most serious human rights problems in our world today. States need to move faster and with more determination to give full effect to those international rules and standards of conduct that may save lives at sea. Above all, those who refuse help to seafarers in distress must be held accountable. — Courtesy: U.N. Information Centre, New Delhi.

( Navi Pillay is U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.)

RELATED NEWS

Migrants at sea: a clarification September 11, 2009

More In: Comment | Opinion