Explained: Why is it difficult to get rescue ships registered?

The Aquarius rescue ship
The Aquarius rescue ship Copyright Reuters
By Yaiza Martín-Fradejas
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Explained: Why is it hard for migrant ships to get registered?


Charities operating the last search and rescue ship aiding migrants in the central Mediterranean made an appeal to France this week for help after Panama revoked the vessel's registration.

Now, migrants aboard the charity rescue ship called Aquarius 2 will be transferred to a patrol boat in international waters and taken to Malta, before being sent to four other European Union states, the Maltese government said on Tuesday.

Given what we've seen this week about vessel registrations with regards to the Aquarius, how important or difficult is it for a rescue ship to attain a country flag?

What's happening with the Aquarius?

Christoph Hempel, owner of Jasmund Shipping from Bremen, the German shipping company that owns the Aquarius, said what happened to the rescue ship was a unique situation.

Hempel told Euronews he was trying to get a German flag for the ship but authorities kept him waiting in order to consult with the German transport ministry. Hempel said this was unusual as he never dealt with such delays in the past.

Hempel said he chartered the ship out of conviction even though he doesn't receive much of a profit. According to international maritime laws, ships are bound to help anyone in distress when they're in international waters.

Hempel adds he is looking for a permanent solution that doesn't depend on political sensitivities.

Why is it important for a rescue ship to have a flag?

A ship without a flag is equivalent to a 'pirate ship,' said Juan Luis Pulido, Professor of Maritime Law and lawyer at the Martínez-Echevarría Law Firm in Spain

Pulido added:

“If a vessel is on the high seas, in international waters, and is not under the jurisdiction of any state, it means that it could be subject to the jurisdiction of any state and any state could apprehend it, detain it." 

"It is not normally difficult to get a flag for a ship. In fact, there is a phenomenon called 'flags of convenience' (Gibraltar, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu, Liberia), which grant their flag with enormous ease. What happens is that no state is obliged to grant a flag to a ship. And if for some reason, which in this case, is mainly of a political nature, the Aquarius does not manage to get any state to grant it a flag, it cannot do anything. The normal thing the Aquarius would have to do if it doesn't get a flag, is to stop sailing," Pulido said.

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