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Unlikely humanitarians - shippers returning to Libya face a tough moral dilemma

A surge in Libyan oil exports -- production has increased sharply in the past few months, jumping to four-year highs of over 1 million b/d this month -- is seeing more and more oil tankers travel to and from the North African country's key oil terminals, increasing tanker activity and pushing up freight rates in the Mediterranean. So far, so good for shipowners.

But as more tankers call at Libyan ports, something which they were happy to avoid altogether less than a year ago, they can find themselves being drawn into the role of unlikely -- and possibly begrudging -- humanitarians.

Increasingly they are receiving calls to assist unseaworthy vessels carrying migrants heading for Europe, shipping sources say.

Under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) -- which was first introduced after the sinking of the Titanic -- all vessels have a legal obligation to respond to other vessels in distress.

It is a somewhat incongruous image, an oil tanker teeming with rescued migrants, but it captures two of the big contemporary issues in the world - our reliance on oil and energy in general, and the profound economic struggles faced by some in this uncertain world that would force them to undertake such a dangerous journey.

The issue of migrants is becoming a real "talking point" among shipowners, who argue that picking up in-distress migrants is both time-consuming and a potentially serious security risk: the number of people picked up could easily outnumber the crew and they may even be armed. There haven't been any problems to date, but it is an obvious concern.

War-torn Libya has over recent years become the key route for migrants from Africa and the Middle East, serving as a portal to Europe.

This is not new, but with the rise in oil flows out of Libya, there are more tankers in the Libyan waters which has also coincided with even more migrants making their way through the desert terrain of northern Africa to sail from Libya, with the ongoing civil unrest and political instability in the country making it a fertile area for human smugglers and traffickers.

So far this year 93,213 people have arrived in Italy by sea, with a good majority of them on oil tankers, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Estimates put the number of people from outside Libya currently in the country and trying to get to Europe at around 300,000.

European and African ministers were meeting in Tunis this week to discuss a plan to limit the flow of migrants to Europe to about 20,000, coupled with a much tougher strategy to deport illegal migrants from Italy and break up smuggling rings.

Much rests on whether or not they can come up with workable solutions. The pressure is becoming ever greater, especially with the Balkan route for migrants having recently been closed by central European countries, forcing more to take to the sea and cross through Libya.

In the face of this Italian government is seriously discussing preventing aid vessels from dropping migrants from Libyan waters to Italian ports, tankers that make rescues could be left in limbo if they cannot disembark the refugees they rescue from the sea at Italian ports.

This is an issue that European shipping markets will definitely be following closely as the role of tankers as unlikely aid vessels continues.