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Problems Related to the Rescue of Asylum-Seekers in Distress at Sea

Executive Committee Meetings

Problems Related to the Rescue of Asylum-Seekers in Distress at Sea

28 August 1984


1. The Executive Committee has examined the problem of the rescue of asylum-seekers in distress at sea at its three previous sessions and has endeavoured to identify ways in which such rescue could be facilitated. Although many asylum-seekers in distress at sea have, in fact, been rescued by passing ships, it is regrettable to have to note that the overall picture does not at present give rise to optimism. Statistics compiled since the Executive Committee's thirty-fourth session indicate that although fewer asylum-seekers are leaving their country of origin in boats, the proportion of persons rescued as compared with arrivals in countries of first asylum is declining.

2. From January to March 1984, no rescues whatever took place while 4,110 persons arrived by boat in first asylum countries. The proportion of rescues to arrivals has dropped from 20 per cent in 1980 to 7 per cent in 1984. A particularly dramatic case in July 1984 involved the odyssey of a boat carrying 84 asylum-seekers, of whom 68 perished at sea. The 16 survivors claimed that their distress signals were ignored by some 40 passing ships.

3. The Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection also discussed this question at its last session and, upon its recommendation, the Executive Committee endorsed UNHCR's renewed efforts to promote measures to overcome this grave problem, expressing the hope that these initiatives would receive the widest possible support from Governments (A/38/12 Add 1, paragraph 97(3)).

Action taken by UNHCR

4. In October 1983, the High Commissioner's Office and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) issued a joint appeal to seafaring nations and to owners and masters of ships concerning the rescue of asylum-seekers and refugees in distress at sea, drawing the attention of all parties involved to their humanitarian obligations and suggesting procedures to reduce the delays and the cost incurred in the disembarkation of such persons.

5. On 14 November 1983, the Director of International Protection addressed the 125 member States attending the thirteenth Assembly of the International Maritime Organization on the continuing need to rescue asylum-seekers in distress at sea, and appealed to them to support draft resolutions on rescue at sea and on the suppression of piracy, designed to increase co-operation by States in these urgent protection problems. It is hoped that in the course of this year these resolutions will find the necessary support from Governments.

6. In June 1984 UNHCR also promoted the broadcasting during a ten-day period of a "CQ" radio message to masters of ships in the South China Sea, inviting them to take aboard refugees in distress at sea, indicating the procedures to be followed, and offering UNHCR's assistance in meeting expenses involved in the care and maintenance of refugees on board. There are indications that this message, transmitted three times a day through the maritime authorities and services of certain countries, has been beneficial and it is intended to repeat such exercises.

The Disembarkation Resettlement Offers (DISERO) Scheme

7. Six countries now contribute to this scheme, which was initiated by UNHCR in 1979 and endorsed by the Executive Committee (A/34/12/Add.1, paras. 120, 125B(a)(ii) and A/36/12/Add.1, para. 57(3) 2). The scheme seeks to provide a solution to the particular problems of ships flying the flags of States operating an open registry (so-called "flags of convenience") and of countries which for special reasons are unable to guarantee permanent admission to refugees. In 1984 it has so far resulted in the disembarkation and resettlement of some 60 persons. New efforts have been made to induce more States to participate as the number of places presently available for the disembarkation of refugees has fallen to a low level. At its last session, the Executive Committee welcomed the continued support given by States to the Disero scheme (A/38/12 Add. 1, paragraph 97(3)).

The Rescue at Sea Resettlement Offers (RASRO) Scheme

8. Following the Executive Committee's recommendation at its thirty-fourth session (A/38/12 Add.1, paragraph 97 (3)), that UNHCR promote this new scheme, which is designed to alleviate the burden on flag States by providing an international pool of resettlement places to facilitate further the disembarkation of refugees rescued at sea and thereby encourage rescue, efforts have been made to obtain the necessary quotas to enable UNHCR to initiate the scheme on a trial basis.

9. A paper entitled "RASRO: Questions and Answers", setting out the aims and procedures of the scheme, was circulated by UNHCR and formed the basis of discussions with representatives of a number of Governments. It was decided that 4,000 places would be necessary to begin the operation.

10. Representatives of 18 countries attended a meeting convened at UNHCR headquarters on 28 march 1984 to discuss the scheme further. At the time of writing, 11 countries (Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States have declared their support for the scheme and have pledged a total of 2,346 places. In addition to its quota contribution, the United States has offered an unspecified reserve, to be resorted to only if all other places have been utilized.

11. Several other countries have indicated their interest but have yet to decide on participation in the scheme, which can begin for a trial period of one year as soon as sufficient pledges are received. The High Commissioner hopes that, with the support of two or three further States, RASRO can be launched soon.