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Problems Related to the Rescue of Asylum-Seekers at Sea

Executive Committee Meetings

Problems Related to the Rescue of Asylum-Seekers at Sea

8 July 1985

1. The problem of facilitating and promoting rescue at sea has been discussed during previous meetings of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection. At the last session, the situation looked particularly grim with the 1984 proportion of rescues to arrivals standing at 7 per cent at the end of August and many tragic episodes of boats arriving with dead or dying on board and survivors' reports of distress signals openly ignored by passing ships. In its conclusions, the Executive Committee "noted with concern that rescue of asylum-seekers in distress at sea has decreased significantly in 1983 and again in 1984". (A/39/12/Add.1, para. 87 (2) (a)).

Action taken by UNHCR

2. Since the thirty-fifth session, UNHCR has continued to promote rescue at sea by appealing to Governments to contribute resettlement places to the DISERO and RASRO schemes, by appealing to shipowners through a new reimbursement scheme and to shipmasters through the issue of a revised version of the booklet "Guidelines for the Disembarkation of Refugees", through "CQ" radio messages and by commendatory cables and awards.

The "Disembarkation Resettlement Offers" (DISERO) Scheme

3. This scheme began in 1979 after extensive discussions in the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection. It has provided the means for the disembarkation and resettlement of refugees rescued by ships flying flags of States operating an "open registry" - the so-called "flags of convenience" - or flags of countries unable to guarantee permanent residence to refugees. Since the situation of refugees disembarking from such vessels remains unchanged, it is important that support for the scheme be maintained. At its thirty-fifth session, the Executive Committee "recognized the need for continued support for the DISERO Scheme and recommended that States renew their contributions to this scheme". (A/39/12/Add.1, para 87 (2) (c)). The recent decision of the Federal Republic of Germany to participate in the scheme brings the number of countries contributing resettlement places to eight (the other participants are Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States).

The "Rescue at Sea Resettlement Offers" (RASRO) Scheme

4. At its thirty-fifth session, the Executive committee "strongly recommended that the RASRO scheme be implemented on a trial basis as soon as possible and that additional resettlement places be provided as a matter of a urgency" (A/39/12/Add.1, para 87 (2) (d)). During the months that followed, a number of States contributed these additional Places. As a result, it was determined at a meeting held in Geneva in April 1985 that an adequate number of places existed to allow the scheme to begin on a trial basis on 1 May 1985.

5. Currently, 15 countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States) have contributed almost 3,000 places to the scheme. It is particularly encouraging to note that seven of the 15 participants are essentially "non-maritime" countries. This emphasises the "burden-sharing" aspect of the scheme and provides a good indication of the international commitment to saving lives at sea.

6. Following requests from several Governments, UNHCR prepared and distributed in March 1985 a set of simple guidelines setting out the basic principles of operational procedure. All coastal States receiving rescued refugees on a temporary basis were briefed on the scheme and a UNHCR official visited the major countries of disembarkation (Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore). The Governments of these countries recognized that the schemers objective is to facilitate disembarkation and rapid resettlement as well as to promote the rescue of refugees in distress.

7. Since RASRO began regular monthly reports have been sent out to participants giving details of disembarkations and submissions made under the scheme. All indications are that the plan is operating smoothly and, along with other measures taken by the High Commissioner, is beginning to have an effect on the rate of rescue. It is therefore appropriate that participants examine carefully UNHCR's reports on the schemers implementation and make any suggestions for changes at the time they renew their quotas for a second year.

The Rescue at Sea Reimbursement Project

8. UNHCR has initiated a dialogue with shipowners and shipmasters on the causes of the decline in rescue. The cause most frequently cited by shipmasters is that by picking up refugees vessels could suffer delays and costs. Although delays have been rare in recent years, and should be even rarer with the advent of the RASRO scheme, it is unfortunately true that those shipowners who respect maritime traditions and the international law of the sea by going to the rescue of refugees in distress at sea have in the past been liable for much of the costs involved in rescue. To alleviate the financial disincentives to rescue, UNHCR, on 1 June 1985, reinforced its scheme under which shipowners' costs directly related to the rescue of refugees are reimbursed.

9. The Reimbursement Project has been made possible by a generous donation from the United States and by the co-operation of various Protection and Indemnity Clubs. Details of the project are included in the UNHCR booklet "Guidelines for the Disembarkation of Refugees" and have been distributed to shipowners and shipmasters operating in the South China Sea.

Personal messages from the High commissioner

10. The High Commissioner has made personal appeals in the form of "CQ" radio messages to all shipmasters in the South China Sea, requesting them to be on the lookout for small boats in distress which might carry refugees and indicating procedures to follow if refugees are rescued. These messages were transmitted in late December 1984 and early July 1985 and appear to have been effective.

11. Since the beginning of the year, the High Commissioner has also sent personal cables of commendation to all shipmasters rescuing refugees and presented them, through UNHCR's Singapore Office, with a token of appreciation in the form of a wall plaque. He has also sent personal letters to the chairman or president of major shipping lines, requesting their co-operation in saving lives at sea.


12. Whilst it is perhaps still early to assess the effects of the various measures introduced over the past year to increase the incidence of rescue at sea, the statistics indicate grounds for cautious optimism.

13. Although refugee boat arrivals have continued to decline in 1985, the proportion of rescues has increased for every month of the year when compared with the same month in 1984 and 1983. The cumulative percentage for the first five months of 1985 was 9 per cent as compared with 6 per cent for the same period in the two previous years.

14. It is gratifying to note that the recommendations of the Executive Committee to Governments to provide resettlement places to both the DISERO and RASRO schemes have been generally followed and that both schemes are operating well. The decline in rescue during 1983 and 1984 was noted with concern by the Executive Committee this time last year. It is a matter of satisfaction that it appears to have been stopped from sliding further in 1985 and that, rescue rates have climbed in the first half of this year.

15. The problem of the rescue of asylum-seekers at sea nevertheless continues to give rise to concern because this office still has serious reason to believe that an unknown number of refugees die at sea after having been passed by ships. While the various schemes now in existence provide a basis for refugee rescue, continued international co-operation and support remains essential as long as the problem remains.