Holland America Cruise Ship Is Latest to Rescue Refugees

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Holland America Line’s Rotterdam is the latest cruise ship to rescue refugees in distress, having encountered not one, but two makeshift boats on Tuesday, January 3, 2023.

While one boat was empty, the second held two refugees who were taken aboard the cruise ship. This incident is one of several encounters between different cruise ships and refugee craft already in the first week of the new year.

Rotterdam Rescues Pair of Refugees

The Pinnacle-class Rotterdam, the newest ship in Holland America Line’s fleet, encountered the refugees during the afternoon of a day at sea as the ship was returning to Fort Lauderdale after a port visit to Cozumel, Mexico. As with many other refugee encounters, the incident occurred in the Straits of Florida between Florida and Cuba.

At first, the cruise ship spotted an overturned boat in the water, easily visible due to its white bottom hull. Rotterdam‘s captain announced that the ship was a known abandoned craft that had been discovered on January 2, with 13 refugees rescued by a Princess Cruises ship.

The United States Coast Guard (USGS) had been notified of the abandoned craft and would be picking it up shortly to eliminate the marine hazard to other vessels.

Rotterdam Cruise Ship
Rotterdam Cruise Ship

Guests onboard Rotterdam reported that about 30 minutes after the first encounter, a second craft was spotted, this one a smaller blue raft with two individuals aboard. The cruise ship adjusted course slightly to rendezvous with the refugees, both male, and took them aboard as their craft was not seaworthy for the region.

The USGS was again notified of the encounter, as is standard procedure, and would be prepared to take custody of the refugees as soon as possible. As is the case with most encounters, the individuals would likely be repatriated to their home country at the earliest opportunity.

After the encounters, Rotterdam resumed course for Fort Lauderdale, adjusting to a higher speed to avoid any delays. The ship returned to its homeport without any further incidents.

Refugee Encounters on the Rise

While encounters with wayward refugee craft are nothing new, such encounters have dramatically risen in recent months, particularly in the waters near Cuba. In just the first few days of the new year…

These are just the confirmed and documented rescues by cruise ships already in 2023, and does not include multiple rescues in the last few days of 2022, encounters by any other types of vessels, refugees who may have perished without being sighted, or even those fortunate few who may have made it successfully to land.

Carnival Sunrise Rescue
Photo Credit: Logan Wilson

In fact, refugee rescues have been rising dramatically in recent months, both with refugees taken aboard cruise ships as well as several encounters where aid has been offered but either not needed or refused and the refugee craft have continued on their way.

Why Take Such a Risk?

Refugees are desperate to seek a better life for themselves and their family, often fleeing from oppressive political regimes, dire economic situations, criminal warrants with severe punishments, or other harsh circumstances that make taking the risk of crossing open and potentially hazardous waters appealing.

At their closest point, roughly between Havana and Key West, Florida and Cuba are just 95 miles (153 kilometers) apart. The region is heavily used not only by cruise ships but also by cargo vessels and private craft, and also patrolled by the USGS, increasing the likelihood that a small craft could be spotted by a larger, better-equipped vessel for a safe rescue.

When refugees are picked up, they are not automatically brought into the United States, however. Each encounter is reported to the proper authorities, most often the Coast Guard, who will then assume responsibility for the refugees.

All refugees are treated humanely with food, water, and medical treatment as needed, but most often they are repatriated to their home countries.

There is very little to deter desperate refugees from making a second, third, or fourth attempt to successfully cross the Straits of Florida, however, and when necessary, cruise ships will continue to render aid to anyone found in distress on the sea.

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