Hospital ships: Half the battle

Hospital ships patch up war wounded. These giant vessels, often converted cargo ships and oil tankers, can house up to 1,000 patients and offer most of the treatments available on land. Back in the good old days when warring factions played by the rules, hospital ships docked offshore. They were protected by white paint, a red cross and the Geneva Convention.

For today’s bad guys, a red cross is a bull’s-eye. What makes hospital ships so capable also makes them vulnerable: it’s hard to turn 70,000 tonnes on a dime.

‘They’re wonderful ships, but they’re dinosaurs. They were designed in the ‘70s, built in the ‘80s, and frankly, they’re obsolete,’ said recently retired Vice Admiral Michael Cowan, and United States Navy Surgeon General. ‘The eventual move away from big hospital ships at sea is mirrored by a trend toward smaller, more flexible and more mobile hospitals on land.’

Today, Brazil, the US, Britain and China deploy their hospital ships on humanitarian missions. Floating diplomacy builds allies and earns street cred.

What is the fate of these vessels reaching their golden years?

Governments could donate their retired hospital ships to help rescue migrants in the Mediterranean. If the current trend of winter migration continues, large vessels will be needed to care for ‘ghost ship’ passengers. Setting up a number of way stations along regular migrant routes would save lives. NGOs and governments would save a fortune in retrofitting costs: these floating cities are good to go!

With regularly stationed hospital ships, migrants have a better chance of bumping into safety than dying at sea.

In the case of saving migrants at sea, Woody Allen was right: half the battle is showing up.