NL implements stricter rules for refugee rescue ships; Sea Watch dissatisfied

Refugees on a Sea Watch ship
Refugees on board the Sea-Watch 3 rescued from a ship sinking near Libya. December 2018Photo: Chris Grodotzki / Sea-Watch

The Dutch government implemented stricter rules and safety requirements for ships that are used to rescue asylum seekers and migrants from the ocean. These ships must immediately adhere to these new rules. NGO organization Sea Watch is dissatisfied. 

The new rules apply to all ships belonging to "organizations with idealistic objectives" that sail under the Dutch flags, Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen of Infrastructure and Water Management said in a letter to parliament. Until now these ships could be registered as a pleasure craft, which meant that they had to meet fewer requirements than other sea going vessels. But as a result "insufficient justice was done to the risk profile of such ships". 

In order to guarantee the safety of the ship's crew and others on board, these ships must now adhere to stricter requirements in the area of safety and crew. This involves the construction of and available equipment on the ship, its fire safety, its emergency equipment, and the training of the crew. In September last year the Minister said that the new rules will be implemented after a transition period. But given the "changed situation", she decided to implement the new rules immediately for ships used to rescue migrants from the sea.

In the recent past people rescued from the sea were relatively quickly allowed to disembark at nearby ports. This meant that rescue ships did not need to have provisions on board to accommodate large groups of people for a long period, the Minister said in her letter to parliament. That situation has now changed. "For every group of people who are taken on board, long negotiations take place to determine which countries are willing to take people in before the ship can enter port. As a result, ships must be longer at sea with large groups of people on board", she wrote. "This changed situation can entail major safety risks."

Ships that belong to organizations with idealistic objectives, but are not used to rescue people from the water, will only have to adhere to the new rules at a later date and after a transition period.

One of the affected ships is Sea Watch 3, which sails under the Dutch flag and rescues asylum seekers from drowning in the Mediterranean sea. NGO organization Sea Watch is not pleased with the new rules. The policy change was hastily implemented and with no transition period for Sea Watch, and shows "what the Dutch government is prepared to do to prevent our legitimate work in civil society", the organization said in a written reaction.

"It is incomprehensible that our own flag state is trying to undermine our work, while we consistently show that we have a very well-equipped rescue ship that exceeds mandatory safety standards" Sea Watch president Johannes Bayer said. 

Regarding the Ministry's concerns about the safety of the people on the ship, Bayer said: "We cannot be held responsible for the current state of rescued people being held at sea for too long in an inhumane manner. However, the situation points to the culpability of certain European states abusing their power. With the next rescue a long impasse is probable, but it remains unacceptable. Blocking our ship for safety reasons is a fundamentally illogical argument when the alternative is to let people drown."