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Mobility and Transport

Ships in Need of Assistance seeking a Place of Refuge

A place of refuge is a place where a ship in need of assistance can take action to enable it to stabilise its condition and reduce the hazards to navigation, and to protect human life and the environment. It may include a port, a place of shelter near the coast, an inlet, a lee shore, a cove, a fjord or a bay or any part of the coast. Because of the many variable factors involved, and the variety of risks, a decision to grant access to a place of refuge can only be taken on a case-by-case basis.

Against the background of past maritime accidents in European waters, the VTMIS Directive includes a number of provisions (Articles 20, 20a, 20b, 20c, 20d, and 23d) concerning ships in need of assistance seeking a place of refuge. The Directive builds on the IMO-Guidelines on places of refuge, and establishes obligations for the different parties involved in such incidents. These aim at ensuring that Member States have effective and independent systems in place, including the required set up, structure and command, to deal with such situations. The Union Maritime Information and Exchange System (SafeSeaNet) is designated in the VTMIS Directive as the appropriate platform for sharing relevant information.

Many times situations leading to a request for a place of refuge involve one Member State and will be handled by the same State, under its jurisdiction. There may however be cases involving neighbouring Member States or Member States in the vicinity of the incident. In order to facilitate the cooperation, the Directive requires the authority or authorities to meet regularly to exchange expertise and experiences.

Therefore, in the aftermath of the MSC Flaminia incident, an expert group was established in 2013, under the chairmanship of the Commission, comprising all EU Member States. This group, which meets regularly, decided to develop EU Operational Guidelines to complement national plans and apply to situations where it is likely that more than one State may become involved, or where the incident falls outside the jurisdiction of any Member State.

The EU Operational Guidelines were drafted with a real operational situation for a vessel in need of assistance in mind, in a common effort including EU Member States, and several industry stakeholders, with the support of the Commission and EMSA. They aim at a robust operational process leading to well-advised and, where possible, quicker decision making. At the same time, they should contribute to promoting positive attitudes – within Governments, authorities, and the industry – for the purposes of Places of Refuge, in the interest of the protection of human life, maritime safety, security and the environment.

On the basis of the work by the experts group, two submissions to IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 95 & MSC 96) jointly with the Commission, The EU/EEA Member States and key industry stakeholders have been made. At the MSC 96 a lunchtime presentation was arranged to explain the EU Operational Guidelines and on the approach taken in developing them, as inspiration for interested non-EU Members of the IMO.

Related documents

MSC 96: Information on the European Union Operational Guidelines on places of refuge

MSC 96: Presentation: EU Operational Guidelines on Places

MSC 95: Information on the work within the European Union on operational guidelines for places of refuge following recent incidents

IMO Assembly Resolution A.949(23) on places of refuge for ships in need of assistance ("IMO Guidelines"), adopted on 5 December 2003

Commission Report to the European Parliament and the Council on liability and compensation for financial damages sustained by places of refuge when accommodating a ship in need of assistance, COM(2012) 715 final, 30.11.2012

IMO webpage on Places of Refuge

20 JULY 2021
(1.42 MB - PDF)

Joint Declaration on the EU Operational Guidelines on Places of Refuge

27/01/2016: "Lessons learned from the accident of MSC Flaminia: new guidelines for ships in need of assistance"