The Thin Blue Line

Op-Ed by John Guy

There is a touching faith in the Navy in Britain. You could hear the sighs of relief last week when the government announced that the Navy was dispatching its flagship, HMS Bulwark, to the Mediterranean. There it will apparently solve the refugee crisis.

All over the country people felt a surge of pride and relief. Those poor Africans drowning as they tried to reach Europe would now be saved by our boys in blue.

A good piece of political theatre, and also an outright lie. Bulwark, despite its pretentious title as flagship, is really a slow and inefficient floating dock with a couple of helicopters on board. It was in the Mediterranean anyway for a Gallipoli anniversary. Now on the way home it will footle around close to the Italian coast for a couple of months, and we will no doubt get some TV footage of brave rescues.

Meanwhile the real tragedy will continue as thousands, literally thousands, die in the waters close to the Libyan coast, and the real work will be done by merchant ships, as always. Over the last year or so merchant ships have saved more than 40,000 people in over 1,000 rescues.

They are not the right ships for doing this. They have high sides and limited maneuverability. They don’t have the right crews to do this. They have only the bare minimum of seafarers to get them from one port to another. They don’t have facilities on board to take care of hundreds of refugees they pluck from sinking boats. And they are busy carrying the trade we all depend on.

But they are seafarers and they do what has to be done and they risk their lives and they save refugees and their companies bear the losses of time and money involved.

There is a simple answer to the refugee problem. That is, make Africa and the Middle East rich and stable. Pending that, there are other things that can be done, including putting proper naval resources where the real problem is, and putting the people they pick up back onto African shores, not onto poor benighted Sicily.

Political will and cash is needed to stop the traffic in desperate refugees and stop the mass drownings. Neither is anywhere evident, so merchant shipping will continue to shoulder the problem and people will continue to die. — MarEx

John Guy served on merchant ships and warships for sixteen years before becoming a ship inspector and then a journalist.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.

This entry has been created for information and planning purposes. It is not intended to be, nor should it be substituted for, legal advice, which turns on specific facts.

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