Captain, crew and owner of "Tampa" win Nansen Award for rescue at sea

The captain, crew and owner of the container ship Tampa win the Nansen Refugee Award for their "personal courage and unique degree of commitment to refugee protection" after rescuing 438 asylum seekers in the Indian Ocean last August.

The Norwegian container ship "Tampa" in the Indian Ocean with asylum seekers on board. © UNHCR  © 

GENEVA, March 19 (UNHCR) - The captain, crew and owner of a Norwegian container ship that altered its course to rescue 438 asylum seekers in the Indian Ocean last August were named the recipients of the Nansen Refugee Award Tuesday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced.

Last August 26, Captain Arne Rinnan of the Tampa diverted his container ship from its scheduled course, at the risk of substantial delays and large financial losses, to rescue the boat people. The asylum seekers subsequently spent more than a week aboard the ship.

The Nansen Committee, which grants the award, also cited the Tampa's owner, Wilhem Wilhelmsen Lines, for its decision to save the lives of the boat people. Captain Rinnan, his crew, and the shipping company "demonstrated personal courage and a unique degree of commitment to refugee protection," the committee said in a statement.

"Wilhem Wilhelmsen Lines has a long record of rescues at sea," the statement added. "Since 1977, the company's vessels have saved more than 1,300 people in various situations."

The award committee said it gave the prize to the Tampa to "honour its international commitment to the principle of rescue at sea." The committee noted that "refugees fleeing persecution frequently use unseaworthy vessels in a bid to reach safety."

Capt. Arne Rinnan aboard his vessel.  © UNHCR

The Nansen Refugee Award, created in 1954 and given annually to individuals and organisations that have distinguished themselves on behalf of refugees, is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the renowned Norwegian polar explorer and the world's first international refugee official.

The award is conferred on a person or group of persons who demonstrate an innovative approach to refugee protection or in assisting refugees. "Of equal merit would be a courageous deed involving personal self-sacrifice, which made an exceptional contribution to advancing interest in and support for the cause of refugees or improving the situation of refugees," according to the formal criteria established by the Nansen Committee, which selects the recipient.

Dr. G. J. van Heuven Goedhart, the first United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, instituted the award in 1954 to promote greater interest in the cause of refugees and keep Nansen's spirit alive. To date, the Committee has awarded 59 Nansen medals, including the one announced Tuesday. The winners include Eleanor Roosevelt, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, the French NGO Médecins Sans Frontières, the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, and the People of Canada.

In 1979, the Nansen Committee added a $100,000 prize to the medal traditionally awarded the recipients. The money, financed from a special Nansen Fund, is intended to enable those who receive it to pursue refugee assistance projects drawn up in consultation with UNHCR. This year's award will be formally presented in Oslo on June 20, World Refugee Day.