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Saving lives at sea is not a crime

Nautilus International leader MARK DICKINSON explains how pressure from his union prevented seafarers being criminalised under the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill for assisting those in danger at sea

THE criminalisation of seafarers is nothing new for Nautilus International.

All too often, seafarers are made the scapegoats when something goes wrong at sea, and as the trade union for maritime professionals, Nautilus is tasked with defending its members when they are unfairly blamed for accidents.

However, the British government’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill represented a new — and very serious — legal threat to every seafarer working around the British coast, something that the union simply could not tolerate.

The Bill proposed to amend the Immigration Act 1971 in ways that could criminalise ships’ masters and their crew for rescuing distressed individuals at sea.

This was of grave concern, both from a humanitarian perspective and because seafarers are bound by international maritime law to assist those in danger. 

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention of Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), masters are required to assist anyone found at sea who is in danger of being lost, which involves bringing them onboard.

There is a responsibility on coastal states to allow these individuals to disembark from the ship under the IMO Search and Rescue Convention.

As originally written, the Bill would have made it a criminal offence to facilitate the arrival or entry of an asylum-seeker into the UK, full stop.

By contrast, the existing legislation specifies that it is an offence to facilitate entry for profit, thus allowing the prosecution of people-smugglers but protecting humanitarian actions. 

The union had concerns over the lack of clarification as to whether seafarers would therefore face prosecution under the new legislation, which would result in a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, an increase from the current 14-year prison sentence.

Nautilus International began its campaign against the Bill in July 2021, issuing a joint letter with the UK Chamber of Shipping (UKCS) to the British government. This called upon ministers to ensure seafarers were not criminalised under new legislation.

Nautilus and UKCS received a response from the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps MP and the Minister for Immigration Compliance and Justice Chris Philip, who said the proposed Nationality and Borders Bill does not seek to punish humanitarian actions and that the government “recognises and welcomes the desire of individuals and community groups to help.”

However, reassurances were not enough, as I said at the time: “Fear of being criminalised for fulfilling their obligations to persons lost at sea is real and while the government’s commitment is very welcome, we would prefer that the legislation is drafted in a way that put this commitment beyond legal doubt.”

Over the following months, Nautilus and UKCS continued to urge the government to ensure that these reassurances were made clear in law. 

The union, alongside UKCS and Maritime UK, were extremely happy to announce on January 6 2022 that seafarers will be exempted from criminal prosecution for helping rescue people at sea.

Conservative MP Tom Pursglove, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for immigration, compliance and courts, confirmed that a new amendment “puts it beyond doubt that organisations and individuals who rescue those in distress will not be convicted for people-smuggling offences.”

Following Nautilus’s announcement, there was an overwhelming show of support across social media for the union’s campaign from journalists, MPs, trade unions, seafarers and their families.

Many expressed shock at the government’s handling of the Bill, wondering why a campaign like this had proven to be necessary to prevent the criminalisation of lifesaving actions at sea.

Together with Maritime UK and the UK Chamber of Shipping, we have achieved a very good outcome and I am pleased the government listened to the industry’s concerns.

Saving lives at sea is not a crime and seafarers should not be criminalised for complying with international law.

However, our fight is far from over. A study we conducted into the issue of criminalisation found that nearly 90 per cent of seafarers fear being criminalised at work — a shocking demonstration of the scale of this problem. 

Nautilus International will continue to campaign for fair treatment in every aspect of their work and we urge maritime professionals to join the union today to ensure that they receive the best legal protection while at sea.

Mark Dickinson is general secretary of Nautilus International.

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