Shipowners in turmoil over refugee case

Australia’s stubborn refusal to accept a Norwegian cargo ship that rescued 438 Afghan refugees from a sinking ferry endangers the time-honoured practice of saving people at sea, the shipping industry has warned.

Australia’s stubborn refusal to accept a Norwegian cargo ship that rescued 438 Afghan refugees from a sinking ferry endangers the time-honoured practice of saving people at sea, the shipping industry has warned.

The captain of the Tampa did his duty under international maritime law when he responded to a distress call on Monday and picked up the refugees when the ferry carrying them illegally from Indonesia to Australia began to founder, shipowners said.

They claim Australia is now violating its moral obligations.

‘‘The Tampa’s captain did what he is supposed to do and maybe a little bit more. He behaved in a very, very orderly and seamen-like fashion,’’ said Ove Tvedt, deputy head of the Copenhagen-based Baltic and International Maritime Council, which represents about 1,000 shipowners all over the world.

‘‘But now he is being barred from putting people ashore ... I shudder at the thought of what message this sends.’’

Shipowners are bound by international maritime law to come to the aid of any vessel in trouble on the seas - a law adopted two years after ships failed to respond quickly to distress calls from the sinking Titanic.

But the shipping industry warns that a dangerous precedent already exists for ships to simply shirk their duties, particularly if they fear getting caught up in the kind of standoff currently facing the Norwegian vessel.

In the late 1980s, Vietnamese ‘‘boat people’’ were often left to die on rough seas by captains who didn’t want the hassle that came with picking them up, said Chris Horrocks, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents national shipowner associations around the world.

A US military jury convicted navy captain Alexander Balian of dereliction of duty in 1989 for failing to help a boatload of Vietnamese refugees who later resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Eventually, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees worked out guidelines for ships that encounter refugees in distress.

Shipowners said that reassured the industry for a while, but in recent years, the problems have re-emerged.

‘‘This is not the first such incident ... but it has become the cause celebre because it is the first to focus so heavily on the plight of a particular ship,’’ Horrocks said.

The Wilhelm Wilhelmsen shipping line, which owns the Tampa, said the vessel picked up the refugees - mostly Afghanis - after being contacted by the Australian coast guard.

But when the Tampa then continued toward Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean to unload its new human cargo, Australian authorities banned it from entering Australian waters.

The ship has since violated that ban but is still being refused permission to dock, despite the captain’s pleas that some passengers require urgent medical attention and the overcrowded ship is no longer seaworthy.

Natasha Brown, spokeswoman for the International Maritime Organisation, a United Nations-affiliated agency which provides oversight to shippers, said it was difficult to judge whether Australia has acted illegally because the laws that govern rescues at sea are so vague.

‘‘The convention is couched in terms which could be interpreted differently,’’ she said.

But Brown added that the problem probably wouldn’t have arisen if the Tampa had responded to a distress call from, say, a holiday liner full of passengers who would willingly return to their home countries.

‘‘We have this totally unacceptable situation where a ship through no situation of its own has become a pawn of the debate about asylum seekers, refugees, and sociopolitical problems,’’ Horrocks said.

Jim Davis of the International Maritime Industries Forum, an umbrella group for the shipping industry, said his sympathy lay with the boat’s captain, but he warned that the refugees might have knowingly taken advantage of ‘‘the fellowship of the sea.’’

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