'Immigration laws impede maritime rescue'

CHENNAI Nov. 7. Inflexible immigration laws of certain countries, general suspicion about third world citizens and the obligation of ship Masters to keep on the right side of bureaucratic rules and procedures came in the way of genuine rescue operations at sea, the Union Shipping secretary, M.P. Pinto, said today.

"``If the rescuer is penalised... the chances are that the next time he sees seafarers in distress, especially if they happen to be from the third world, he will turn his head away and proceed to his destination,'' Mr. Pinto told an international conference on `Maritime search and rescue' organised by the Indian Coast Guard here.

Narrating an instance, he said a Master who rescued a few seafarers from a sinking vessel was held responsible for the fact that those whom he rescued did not have valid papers to enter the nearest port from the scene of sinking. "The Master of the vessel and his companion were asked to provide security, make arrangements for repatriation and assume all legal obligations attendant on the repatriation of those rescued. There was no attempt to involve the Flag State or the Union of Seafarers,'' he said.

He urged the conference to consider if human life was more important than laws of immigration. Referring to a recent incident when a ship, Tampa, picked up survivors near Christmas Island and was refused entry into the port, he said that the ending of that drama was largely due to the Master, who stood his ground, declared a state of emergency and entered the Australian waters. The Defence Minister, George Fernandes, inaugurating the two-day conference, said the challenges at sea continued to be formidable. An internationally recognised and effective distress reporting, and search and rescue system was being put in place in India with the Coast Guard at its helm.

The FoC-in-C (East), Raman Puri, said the Navy acted in close coordination with the Coast Guard in search and rescue operations.

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