Mediterranean Sea: Refugee ships and IMO guidance on seaborne refugees

Refugees and Migrants

Published: 21 January 2015

Members will have seen the extremely concerning news reports of un-crewed vessels being used to transport refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. This new development creates not only hazards for navigation, but brings with it an even greater risk of tragedy as the migrant situation in this area continues. The IMO has published detailed guidance that may assist members in dealing with some of the issues arising.

MV Ezadeen, at port after rescue (Source: Italian media)

The development

There have been two recent well publicised incidents where commercial vessels, laden with refugees, were abandoned by the persons operating the vessel. From information available it seems that people smugglers are using this is as a new method for carrying refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean Sea. There are likely a number of reasons and factors at play in this development, but these are beyond the scope of this advisory.

Fortunately in both incidents the Italian authorities were able to take action that prevented a large scale tragedy.

Members need to be alert, however, to the potential risk of the navigational hazard posed by such vessels, as well as the increased chance that an event will occur that necessitates a major search and rescue operation involving potentially hundreds of people at risk.

Members trading in the Mediterranean or transiting its Sea should continue to monitor developments and remain alert to the risks and challenges posed by this on-going situation.

IMO guidance

Guidance has been published by the IMO, in conjunction with the UN and the ICS, to assist vessels and owners in dealing with seaborne refugees, migrants and other persons rescued at sea.


  • MSC.167(78) - Guidelines on treatment of persons rescued at sea
  • Rescue at sea (UNHCR, IMO, ICS)

Both of these documents are republished alongside this bulletin.

Further information, including detailed UN reports can be obtained at the IMO website.

Loss prevention advice

Given the on-going nature of the events that are driving the movement of people from certain places in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, towards Europe as well the significant monetary value of the people smuggling business, it is likely that 2015 will continue to see persons crossing the Mediterranean in a variety of vessels.

Some reports indicate that an old vessel could be obtained for as little as USD200,000, but that refugees may pay up to USD8,000 per person to be transported.

Members whose vessels trade in this part of the world or transit through it should proceed on the basis that their vessel may come across persons in distress at sea or be called upon by a national authority like the Italian Coast Guard, or the EU's Agency Frontex, to assist in a search and rescue operation.

In addition to the IMO guidance referenced above, the Association has published a number of loss prevention bulletins on this issue.

Particular reference is made to the following bulletin, which includes helpful detailed guidance prepared by the Norwegian Shipowners' Asscociation, 'Rescued persons on the high seas'.

Should a member encounter distressed persons at sea or be asked by an authority to participate in a SAR then urgent contact should be made with the Association.

The Association is grateful to S.W. Garbutt & Son for their assistance with this update.

MV Ezadeen under tow (Source: Italian media)