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A Safe Haven Without Exception

Monday, 03 September 2018 | 16:00

How can – or should – ports be prepared for the arrival of migrants and refugees by sea? Felicity Landon reports

The diplomatic row surrounding the handling of the Aquarius, with 630 rescued people on board, kept the stories of migrants and refugees in the headlines in July. The Aquarius, turned away by both Italy and Malta, eventually docked in Valencia. Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez said at the time: “It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations.”

A ‘Rescue at Sea’ guide produced by the International Maritime Organization, the International Chamber of Shipping, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015 focuses on the principles and practice relating to refugees and migrants.

It states: “Governments have to co-ordinate and co-operate to ensure that masters of ships providing assistance by embarking persons in distress at sea are released from their obligations with minimum further deviation from the ship’s intended voyage, and have to arrange disembarkation as soon as reasonably practicable.”

The Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) first involved in any rescue should immediately accept responsibility for co-ordinating the rescue efforts, since related responsibilities, including arrangements for a place of safety for rescued persons, fall primarily on the government responsible for that region, say the guidelines.

A place of safety is defined as a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate, where basic human needs (food, shelter, medical) can be met, and where transport can be arranged for the rescued people’s next or final destination.

That place, of course, is likely to be a port. What, then, must ports do?

Obligations for ports

David Hammond, founder and trustee of Human Rights at Sea, says: “The obligation for ports is to uphold human rights at every stage and ensure the safety of all people in the port, including port workers and passengers passing through.

“This issue cuts across fundamental human rights. People who are rescued at sea are entitled to all the same human rights protection as those who rescue them and those who run the port. They are not second or third-class citizens.”

In terms of practicalities, he has no patience with ports that are not prepared. “This should not be unexpected or a surprise. This should be part of any professional port’s forward planning and part of every port authority’s contingency plan.”

It is the obligation of both the Port State Control authority and the port operator or authority to ensure that the correct reception facilities are in place in order to support basic humanitarian efforts and ultimately provide up-to-and-including lifesaving healthcare in the first instance, says Mr Hammond.

“The people coming into port may have health issues; there will be women who are pregnant; a lot of people are coming from centres in Libya where they have been brutalised or raped. So there needs to be an awareness of the port authority of the trauma these people have gone through.”

Port authorities should have a standing operational procedure in place for receiving migrants and refugees, he adds, and there should be an area which is isolated but provides access for police, immigration and other authorities and enables internal security to record who is coming in. Ports also need to provide full access to organisations such as the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières.

Husbandry needs

A port should also be ready to supply vessels coming in; rescue organisation vessels such as the Aquarius have the same rights to take on water, fuel and other supplies alongside as any other vessel. “Obviously they pay for it, but they should never be denied,” says Mr Hammond.

“When a port knows they have a vessel coming in with however many people on board, they need to put together a co-ordination cell that links port state authority, police, immigration, the third sector (NGOs) and healthcare. Throughout history, ports have been focused on embarkation and disembarkation, so this is nothing new. For us, as a charity, it is simply raising awareness that human rights apply equally at sea and on land.”

Albrecht Beck, director of Prepared International (PPI), is leading a UN Development Programme project to develop guidelines on preparing for large-scale emergencies that have a risk of blocking ports and, thus, the hinterland. Immigration and large population movements are a major focus in this.

“We are looking into harbours, ports and maritime as critical infrastructure for humanitarian needs in emergency and disaster response,” he says. “What we have found is that ports are not really well prepared for these topics. Many countries don’t expect to face a major disaster; if something happens, it is much too late at that point to prepare for it and decide who is responsible for what.”

From a humanitarian point of view, there are clear standards and minimum requirements for looking after people who arrive in a port, says Mr Beck. “For example, layout – if you shelter people for a certain length of time, there are certain amounts of space you have to provide. Not many ports are prepared for that.

“You need to think about medical services and screening people as they arrive or leave. That needs space. With some boats, immediate lifesaving measures have had to be taken in port.”

While there is so much focus on migrants entering southern Europe, he says there are many other examples. “We have a lot of people in Yemen being evacuated via ships, and the ports are not prepared. You cannot rely on ‘such things would never happen to us’ – a few years ago, people would not have thought of it in Europe.”

If a port isn’t prepared, the arrival of a vessel full of refugees could bring commercial operations to an abrupt halt, he warns. “Ports should definitely sit down and talk about it.”

Who pays?

Preparedness itself is not so difficult in itself, says Mr Beck, but the number of different actors in a port does provide a challenge. “Who pays for it and who pays to train for it? Who pays for having shelters prepared that maybe are never used? There are not clear lines on who pays what. There are no international standards on how ports should be prepared for such issues, and part of our project will be to set some guidelines.”

Ports with a well-developed response in place could share knowledge. However, from a logical point of view, he says that costs would be the responsibility of the state. “It is hard to make the private sector responsible for humanitarian aid or disaster. But we do need to see building, sharing and co-operation between public and private sectors.”

Some ports are turning to drone technology to detect migrants and refugees, says Shirley Salzman, marketing director at Percepto.

“In today’s high-tech economy, very little is left to chance. Ports remain a hotspot for smuggling, trafficking and illegal migration. To help mitigate this issue, ports are turning to drone technology to conduct inspections of coastal areas and are using thermal cameras to detect any human presence in container yards.”

While drones are being used in ports for surveillance and monitoring purposes, it is less common to find them specifically spotting migrants, “but it is happening”, she says. “Ports in Spain and Seattle are using drones particularly for this reason.”


The Port of Valencia responded to the request of the Spanish Government to manage the berthing needs and usual port services for the Aquarius and for the Coast Guard vessel and Italian Navy ship that accompanied it.

“As a port, our job was to facilitate the work of the competent authorities in immigration, health, etc.,” says a spokeswoman. “The same was done for attending journalists. We put in place all the facilities for the Valencian authorities to co-ordinate the relationship with the media.”

Cruise Pier 1 was allocated to the Aquarius and the other two vessels, while Cruise Pier 2 was used for the media. “Both docks were equipped with tents for passenger reception. The Spanish Government and the Valencian authorities installed everything necessary.”

Tables and chairs were supplied for journalists, as well as tiers for TV cameras.

In essence, the port provided the ‘usual’ port services and facilities, while everything else was provided by the Valencia authorities, she says.

A focus on collaboration and service meant that the process was perfect and there were no problems, says the spokeswoman. What would be Valencia’s advice to other ports?

“Collaboration and co-ordination between the parties which are involved are essential,” she says.

There was a clear separation between the working/operational area and the media attention. “The authorities had to work without interference and had a super-protected area. But journalists also had their right to develop their role, respecting the right to privacy and the image of migrants.

“They were located 200 metres from the Aquarius berth – a distance that allowed them to see the arrival of the boats and that was enough to preserve the right to privacy of health workers, police and migrants. Everything went well, thanks to the co-ordination that was carried out by the Valencian government.”
Source: Port Strategy

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