9 February 2007The United Nations refugee agency is seriously concerned about the situation of some 400 people of various nationalities on a ship drifting off the West African coast, who have not been allowed to disembark for several days. The United Nations refugee agency is seriously concerned about the situation of some 400 people of various nationalities on a ship drifting off the West African coast, who have not been allowed to disembark for several days. “At this point in time, the main priority should be to help these people and not let them drift on the high seas in precarious conditions,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Director for Protection George Okoth-Obbo said. “UNHCR urges on humanitarian grounds that people on board this ship be allowed to disembark as soon as possible.” The Spanish Red Cross and the Mauritanian Red Crescent are delivering relief supplies to alleviate the immediate needs of the passengers aboard Marine I, which was spotted by the Spanish air rescue service on 30 January, apparently adrift. A day later a tugboat from the Spanish rescue service approached the ship and has since been accompanying it. The seas off West Africa have seen an increasing exodus of migrants seeking to reach Spain’s Canary Islands with sometimes deadly consequences as rickety boats succumb to the waves. In the first five months of last year alone, 7,400 people reached the islands after undertaking the perilous journey. Thousands of lives have been lost over the last decade in this exodus across the Atlantic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea, according to UNHCR officials. It is not clear whether there are people on board the Marine I seeking asylum. “Measures must be in place to identify persons who wish to seek asylum or may be in need of international protection and to channel such claims appropriately,” Mr. Okoth-Obbo said. In the past, vessels fulfilling their duty to rescue those in peril at sea have encountered problems disembarking those rescued. “This state of affairs can seriously threaten the integrity of the time-honoured humanitarian tradition and legal obligation to assist people in distress at sea,” Mr. Okoth-Obbo added. To help ship captains, ship owners, government authorities, insurance companies, and other interested parties involved in rescue at sea situations, UNHCR and the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) have issued an information leaflet that provides guidance on relevant legal provisions and procedures.